By MEAGHAN CASEY
It’s hard to imagine that a small ice cream parlor once sat on the landmark Route 1 spot that houses the expansive Kowloon Restaurant. Looking at the transformation, it’s remarkable that one family had the foresight to open a business that would become one of the largest Asian dining complexes in the country.
When the space was converted in 1950, the restaurant accommodated some 40 customers. Eight years later, Madeline and Bill Wong took the reins from Madeline’s parents, Chun-sau Chin and Tow See. In the early days, Bill cooked, and Madeline was a waitress and hostess. Bill had experience since his parents, Goe Shing and Lem Ding, had a restaurant near Symphony Hall in Boston.
As the business grew, the family five times added to the original building and increased seating to 1,200. The menu has expanded to offer Cantonese, Szechuan, Mandarin, Thai and Japanese dishes.
We chatted with Bobby Wong, the third of Madeline and Bill Wong’s six children. Bobby started working at Kowloon in the late ’60s, when he was just 15 years old. Today, he and his siblings, Andy, Linda, Lisa, Donald and Stanley, are third-generation owners.
1.There’s a story behind the name, and the facade.
The restaurant was originally named the Mandarin House. When Madeline and Bill bought the restaurant in 1958, they changed the name to Kowloon. Bill, who was born in Boston, was sent to boarding school in Guangzhōu, China, which is northwest of Hong Kong, and the Kowloon area became a fixture in his mind. He took refuge there from the invading Japanese army before returning to the United States as a teenager. The restaurant’s exterior features a pagoda-shaped entrance, inspired by the pagoda temple at Kowloon Walled City Park. The couple also gathered ideas for the restaurant during a long honeymoon that included stops in Honolulu, San Francisco and Miami. The tiki influences, including the 15-foot carving at the entrance, resulted from that trip.
2. The Wongs have been named hall-of-famers, multiple times.
In November, Andy, Bobby, Linda, Lisa, Donald and Stanley were inducted into the Massachusetts Restaurant Association Hall of Fame. Bill and Madeline were inducted into the same hall of fame in 2001. Madeline also earned another crowning achievement, outside of the restaurant industry. She spent decades as a top life insurance representative for John Hancock and was the first woman to earn membership in the company’s top sales club and to be inducted into the John Hancock Hall of Fame.
3. The customer favorite is the Saugus chicken wings.
Though Kowloon offers everything from sushi to Singapore street noodles to whole fried fish, Bobby says the traditional appetizers and house specials are the most popular dishes, especially the Saugus chicken wings. A signature appetizer, the wings are slathered in a soy-ginger garlic sauce that’s sticky, sweet and delicious. They were named by sports talk radio host Eddie Andelman.
4. Andelman is the only person to name a dish and have a dish named after him.
If you order the Eddie Andelman lo mein, you’ll be getting stir-fried shrimp, chicken, onions and peapods over a bed of pan fried noodles with a black bean sauce. “Eddie was working in Boston and living in Lynnfield, so he would drive by and come in here once or twice or even three times a week,” said Bobby. “He liked mixing and matching and he created this one dish with noodles, shrimp and chicken. Every time he’d come in he’d have it, so we finally just put it on the menu.”
5. Hundreds of celebrities have visited over the years.
If you look at the wall of photos of celebrities who have dined at Kowloon, it’s amazing to see just how many there have been. Athletes include Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Cam Neely, Micky Ward, Reggie Lewis, Robert Parish, Paul Pierce, Matt Light, Adam Vinatieri and more. The restaurant has also hosted wrestlers including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena; sometimes two dozen of them will come in after a big event at the Garden.
Kowloon has also attracted visits from such actors as Joe Manganiello, Forest Whitaker, Anne Hathaway, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Tracy Morgan, Bill Burr and Dane Cook.