Authentic Chinese dishes in Essex since 2003
by Leon J. Thompson
Joyce Fong prepares Chinese dishes and generously shares with her customers at Joyce’s Noodle House in Essex her experiences growing up in China and the long and harrowing journey that finally brought her to the United States in 1977.
The first customers start filing into Joyce’s Noodle House around 11:15 a.m. on this particular Tuesday — a pair of professionally dressed women, evidently on an early lunch break. They take the corner table near the fish tank; it’s a coveted spot at Joyce’s.
“I already know what I’m having,” one woman says.
“Me, too,” the other replies. “I love this place.”
Regulars. Joyce Fong sees plenty at the Chinese restaurant she opened in 2003 in the Essex Town Center, but as her Tuesday lunch customers start scanning their menus, it’s tempting to wonder how many of them know that she swam three miles to freedom to get here; or that she initially harbored a slight distaste for Vermont; or that the death of her husband, Peter, would shape her life.
“My life has been complicated,” Fong says, from the table near the fish tank, about an hour before the ladies on lunch break occupy it. She smiles often in conversation, even during the difficult parts. “I could write a book about it.”
Fong, 60, would probably devote several chapters to Joyce’s Noodle House, which seats 88 people, thanks to a section she added a year after she opened, because customer feedback indicated she would need the space.
“We were full all the time,” Fong recalls. “We still are.”
Sometimes, customers call ahead and order — so that Fong will cook their meals herself, with a boost of Chinese authenticity – or they simply choose what’s popular on the menu, such as Orange Flavor Beef, Sesame Chicken, or any style of Lo Mein. Four cooks, out of 10 part-time employees, are responsible for the fully satisfied faces of Fong’s customers. Each dish contains homemade sauces and fresh ingredients.
“If people want to spend money here, I want them to be happy,” Fong says. “People open restaurants and have customers leave unhappy. I don’t want to do that. Why would anyone want to do that?”
Emily Richards, 34, of St. Albans happened upon the restaurant earlier this year during a shopping trip to the nearby Essex Outlets with her son, Seth, 6. They were hungry, but when Richards saw the proverbial Golden Arches of fast food in the vicinity, she engaged in a quick hunt for a healthier alternative.
“We noticed Joyce’s Noodle House nearby, and I thought, ‘Hmmm … Seth likes Chinese food,’” Richards says. “We weren’t expecting much other than a regular-style Chinese restaurant. We were very pleasantly surprised by the great service and wonderful décor and absolutely delicious food.”
Now they’re regulars.
The Asian Studies Outreach Program (ASOP) at the University of Vermont has a long history with Fong and Joyce’s Noodle House, according to Bill Williams, retired ASOP director.
“It is one of the places we take visiting teachers from China when they arrive in Vermont,” Williams says. “We call Joyce and tell her the provinces from China where the teachers live, and she then prepares dishes from those provinces — a little bit of ‘home’ for the arriving teachers, as they embark on a five-month stay in Vermont schools.”
Williams says officials with the Governor’s Institute on Asian Cultures (GIAC), held on the UVM campus in late June, also take their participating high school students to Joyce’s Noodle House.
“We have two reasons for this,” Williams says. “One is to have the students experience good Chinese food prepared in a more authentic way than many American Chinese restaurants. The second is that Joyce tells about her experiences growing up in China, and then her long and harrowing journey to the United States.”
Fong was 14-year-old Joyce Yong when grandmother started teaching her to cook in China. Some recipes at the restaurant stretch back to the Shang dynasty — B.C. — but Fong adjusted them for Joyce’s Noodle House because Chinese and American palates are different, she says. Years later, she would study cooking in Hong Kong and eventually in New York City.
“Cooking is a science,” Fong says. “I have loved it all my life.”
In the mid-1970s, China was in the last years of its decade-long Cultural Revolution, a social-political movement by Mao Zedong to enforce communism and remove capitalist, traditional, and cultural components from Chinese society. Schools closed, and Fong was among the 80 percent of students who were sent to work on farms.
Her father, a general under the old guard, was imprisoned for 25 years when he was 36 years old. “You couldn’t own anything,” Fong says. “Everything belonged to the government. Your home. Your business. Everything. Basically, they took it all.”
Fong grew up in Canton (Guangzhou), the capital and largest city of Guangdong province, located on the Pearl River about 75 miles north-northwest of Hong Kong. She had the proper paperwork to travel south, to farming villages surrounded by soldiers, along the coast, during the Cultural Revolution. One night, she left and swam 3 miles down the coast — for three hours — to immunity and freedom in Hong Kong. She was 20 years old.
“You couldn’t swim during the day to escape, only at night,” Fong says. “I tried to escape three other times. I made it on four.”
She stayed with relatives in Hong Kong and sent a letter to her family, notifying them that she was safe. She worked at a bank during the day and learned English at night.
“I was so happy,” she says.
Fong came to the United States under a refugee program in 1977, to her family’s chagrin. She was not yet fluent in English and had no familial ties to the U.S. Her relatives wondered, “What will you do there?” (Today, all of her siblings live in the U.S. and Canada. Her father and mother died in 2006 and 2008, respectively.)
She was working in grocery sales and banking in New York City when she met Peter Fong, her husband-to-be. They wed in San Francisco in 1980. Two years later, they opened their first Chinese restaurant in Farmington, Conn.
“We did very good business there,” Fong says.
Friends in Connecticut nudged them toward Vermont, because, she says, they saw a need for Chinese restaurants near ski areas in the 1980s.
“And when we first came here, all I saw was a big field and a mountain,” Fong recalls. “I did not like it. I told my husband, ‘There are no Chinese people here to feed!’”
However, Fong soon learned the demand for Chinese food was in American mouths when she and Peter opened Mandarin, a restaurant on Burlington’s Church Street, in 1987. They sold it five years later. Shortly afterward, Peter Fong suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 52.
“He was large,” Joyce Fong says, “but he was so nice. Everyone liked him.”
She had two young children at the time: Lawrence, now a real estate agent with Yellow Sign in South Burlington; and Florence, a scientist at Perrigo Nutritionals in Georgia.
“It was very hard when their father died,” Fong says. “Not easy, especially when they were so young.”
Fong wanted to move to California, but her children called Vermont home.
“What could I do?” Fong says. “It was the same with my husband: he wanted to stay, so we stayed. My kids wanted to stay, so I stayed.”
A single mom then — she’s never remarried — Fong took a four-year break from the professional kitchen after Peter’s death. She returned in 1997 as a prep cook at Outback Steakhouse in South Burlington. It reignited her passion, and her feelings heightened after she encountered some former customers from Mandarin.
“They asked me, ‘How come you are not at your own place?’” Fong remembers. “I realized I missed it.”
She opened and sold an Asian restaurant elsewhere in Essex, and another for one season near Sugarbush resort before she arranged with Homestead Design Inc. to open Joyce’s Noodle House in the Essex Town Center. She immediately started seeing familiar faces from Mandarin.
“I like it here, and I do like Vermont,” Fong says. “There are stores all around my restaurant, and a movie theater around the corner. They all keep me busy.”
Fong hopes to retire in three years, if she can. Lawrence has been cooking part time at Joyce’s Noodle House since it opened, absorbing all the tricks and techniques his mother will offer, and has expressed interest in perhaps assuming the restaurant someday, Fong says.
“He’s a good cook,” she says. “He could do all this and be good at it.” •