Oriental Express Owner Feels Sweet and Sour About His Restaurant Closing

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Jimmy Yuan on the last day of business for Golden Phoenix Oriental Express, the landmark downtown Chinese restaurant he has owned with his wife for 18 years. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Jimmy Yuan on the last day of business for Golden Phoenix Oriental Express, the landmark downtown Chinese restaurant he has owned with his wife for 18 years.

A few weeks ago, word got out that Golden Phoenix Oriental Express would close at the end of the year. The restaurant on 11th Street across from The Record Exchange has been in business for 18 years, run by Jimmy Yuan and his wife, but the couple recently decided to retire.

I went to say goodbye and ask Jimmy how he felt on the last day of his business, Tuesday, Dec. 31. He greeted me with a cup of tea early in the morning. With all the tables set and soy sauce bottles neatly arranged, the restaurant didn't look like it was on its deathbed, save a neat pile of boxes in the corner. But since rumor spread, almost every table has been full for the past month.

Jimmy got to work that morning around 7 a.m. and planned to stay until closing, after 9 p.m. He expected it would be one of his busiest days since the restaurant opened almost 20 years ago.He sipped his own cup of tea, clearly enjoying the calm before the storm on his last day of business, and took a few minutes to talk with Boise Weekly about how he's feeling about closing the doors.

So how do you feel?
I’m glad. I’m sad, and I’m happy. It’s been 18 years. I’ve come here every morning. I feel sorry for the people who have come here the last couple weeks. I didn't have good service, because so busy.

What’s your favorite memory from the past 18 years?
Ah. People come here, they’re like family members. Boise people are so nice. We had restaurants in Billings, Mont. and Phoenix, Ariz. before this, but it must be something in the water because people come here and they’re so nice. A lady comes here all the time, she said she felt very sad [that we were closing]. She said this is her sanctuary. And one boy, probably less than 10 years old, he told his mom he is going to bring his kids here. I have a lot of memories from here.

Did anyone offer to take the restaurant over for you?
No. The landlord doesn't take care of you. It’s so cold in here in the winter and so hot in the summer, because the AC [doesn’t work]. This building is not up to code. So if I sell to somebody, it would take them a long time to get up to code. It was fine 18 years ago, but not now.

Where do you go to eat Chinese food?
Home. My wife cooks at home. I tried when I first came here [to go to another Chinese restaurant]. But it’s different. Local people make bland, Americanized Chinese food. They don’t even try to put in soy sauce. The ingredients are different, everything. People have different tastes here. A lot of people ask me where to go now. I tell them they’ll find something.

What’s the name of your restaurant, exactly?
We call it Golden Phoenix Oriental Express, because when we first came here, I actually wanted it called Golden Phoenix, but the city didn’t like it so I changed it to Oriental Express. The first few years here were kind of tough. People at first thought it was fast food. Then they come here and they try the food and they say, "Oh, you’re not fast food. Your food is tasty."

What are you going to do with all your free time now?
Travel. I’m going to China in a month for Chinese New Year. Play a little bit of golf, study a little bit. I’m interested in medicine. Eastern and Western are different. Eastern is a preventative. Western, when you get sick, you go see a doctor and he gives drugs or opens you up. Eastern medicine is different.

When you look around your restaurant now, what do you think?
It’s my baby still, you know. Eighteen years, I’ve taken care of it. I stayed here more than my home.