Chef Tammy Wong on Keeping Up Her Minneapolis Restaurant
Tammy Wong followed a circuitous path to becoming an acclaimed Minneapolis chef and restaurateur. Born in the Chinese quarter of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, she immigrated to the United States with her family in 1979. They settled in Minneapolis a few years later, and at the age of 23, Wong opened Rainbow Chinese Restaurant on a section of Nicollet Avenue now known as “Eat Street.” After decades of success, she temporarily closed the restaurant to diners during the pandemic, but kept up her takeout business and continued to work on beautifying her storefront in the Whittier neighborhood. In 2022 she received a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant for $40,000 from the National Trust and American Express. We spoke with Wong just after she reopened the Rainbow Chinese dining room in July of 2023.
How did Rainbow Chinese start?
My mom and my dad wanted to have a restaurant. And I am the oldest daughter of nine children. So I was kind of learning how to run the business on day one. After being in business for 36 years, I could just tell you that I’m still learning.
Stay connected with us via email. Sign up today.
What is it like having your dining room open again?
People in the community are really supportive. The last couple weekends I’m open, people are very happy about coming back. I think they are wanting to show their appreciation. It’s nice to hear that—this business is all about taking care of other people and taking care of your community. It’s a lot to think about. And it’s about wanting to take care of employees too, right? To make sure everybody’s doing a good job and they’re happy there and they can make money for living. So, here I am!
What did you do with the Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant?
We wanted to welcome people back to our dining room. We repainted the front of the restaurant. Also, we had our sign retiled and repainted. We put in a brand-new awning, because we had a brand-new mural painted on the north wall of the building just before the pandemic, in 2019. So I thought we’d do a different awning matching the mural’s retro color. It’s little things like that. And then we also fixed up and painted the flower planters. We rebuilt and restored them with ipe wood. I think that was important, to get the boxes refreshed. We hired a really good carpenter for that. People notice every little thing, and they appreciate it.
The grant was really helpful. I actually took out some of my personal money to do some additional work, like repainting the inside of the restaurant and retiling the vestibule. It takes a lot to keep the building up—it’s always a work in progress.
A lot of times people will stop outside and take photographs, or they might stop and check out what kind of plants [we have], or they might stand there for a few minutes and smell the plants, all the kinds of things that people do. And so I thought, “Wow, it’s kind of a beautiful thing, right? It’s one little thing I’m doing where people can stop and take a second and meditate.” And that makes me feel really good.
What made you decide to reopen?
It’s easy to call it quits, but I think people were really looking for me to reopen. Last week my friends asked me, “How do you feel about being open now?” I said, “It’s kind of like going to have a baby again.” It’s just a lot of pressure, right? Because sometimes we will have a table of people eating together with three generations that have been eating at Rainbow. We’ve been there for 36 years. Even when they move away, they come back, and when they come back, they want it to be there! Especially for holidays, you know? For Christmas Eve and Lunar New Year, a lot of reservations come in, because people want to be there.
Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.
Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.