A 33 year sweet and spicy run ends in December
By Ernie Altgelt
Photography By Martin Waddy
For 33 sweet and spicy years, ‘09ers with an overpowering yen for authentic Oriental cuisine have happily, hungrily and hurriedly beaten a well-worn path to North Broadway’s much beloved Hsiu Yu Chinese restaurant. Founded on a time-tested recipe with key ingredients rich in service, savor and satisfaction, this unpretentious yet elegant eatery melds the finest in flavor, friendship — and especially, when considering the proprietors and their patrons — family. Taken as a whole, the result is a tasteful blend where Eastern culinary traditions and hearty Alamo Heights appetites unite in a perfect shared harmony. Your order, please!
However, all good things must eventually end, and come this dark December, Hsiu Yu (pronounced Shu yu) will be closing, never to reopen again. And while sad in many respects for Hsiu (whom the restaurant is named after), her husband, John, and their daughter, Charlin, a new chapter will begin where the focus will shift from constant gracious hospitality and years of hard, unrelenting work to one of well-earned leisure filled with children, grandchildren and even (a rarity in their lives) a little free time. To the many who know the inspirational Yu family, this is a long overdue reward, and while saddened by the loss of a treasured community asset, it is completely, albeit sadly, supported. But after three decades of uninterrupted and unparalleled excellence, the dining public of 78209 should consider itself fortunate indeed for the many wonderful years of enjoyment.
Hsiu Yu’s story began long before the restaurant’s 1983 opening when a young and ambitious John Yu left his home in Taiwan in 1971 after signing on as a crew cook within a cargo ship bound for the United States. He had recently received his degree in the culinary arts, and coupled with his natural instincts around the stove, was determined to make a career in the restaurant business. Initially landing in New York, John found work as a chef there before responding in 1978 to a classified ad from a San Antonio restaurant seeking a head cook. After a long-distance interview, he was instantly hired, moved south and has been here ever since.
Marriage to an American citizen in the U.S. Air Force brought Hsiu, a native of Taiwan as well, to the Alamo City in 1971 after her husband received transfer orders. Sometime later, following a divorce and now with an infant daughter named Hope, the young mother was on her own in a still strange and somewhat alien environment. But by working two jobs to provide for herself and Hope, she made do. Fortunately, one of those positions was within the same restaurant where John came to be employed. Love blossomed, and in 1979 the two married and later were blessed with Charlin, Hsiu’s second daughter.
Although they’d always worked for others, the Yus quietly harbored a dream of owning their own restaurant. During breaks from work, John would travel around town scouting locations. In early 1983, he drove past a vacated Pizza Inn on Broadway and felt, “This could be the place.” Excitedly bringing Hsiu back to show her the building, he was delighted when she quickly agreed, remarking that she “loved the red brick color.” In Taiwan red is a sign of good luck. A deal was made with the owner, a name decided upon, and a few months later Hsiu Yu opened for business.
As they both remember of that time, “At first it was slow and dollars were tight.” The Yus couldn’t get financing, so they had no choice but to use personal funds to get things up and running. However, with hard work, secondhand furnishings, great food from the get-go and the slow but inevitable “discovery” by patrons living and working in the surrounding neighborhood, growth occurred and with that, success.
A visit today to Hsiu Yu really isn’t that much different from what it was in 1983. Hsiu works the front, greeting one and all (often by name) as well as handling the finances, while John is the force in the kitchen, maintaining quality and consistency while constantly tweaking the menu to fit customers’ tastes and desires. He often experiments, and that has resulted in the creation of many new sumptuous dishes. Charlin, who admits to “having grown up in the restaurant,” plays multiple roles but primarily functions alongside her mother. The décor has been updated and made more accommodating, but as Hsiu acknowledges, “Under the tablecloths, some of the same tables we opened with are still in use.”
The staff has blossomed from the original two – John and Hsiu – to eight assistants in the kitchen and a supporting wait staff of six (including Hsiu’s sister), while the menu offerings have expanded to more than 96 delicious entrees prepared from pork, beef, duck, chicken, fish, and of greatest importance, lots of fresh vegetables. Most remarkably, the restaurant has always been open seven days a week with the Yus personally putting in 12- to 14-hour shifts. As John attests, “It’s been hard work but worth it. We’ve made many friends along the way, and it’s been a pleasure serving them – from one generation to next – but it’s time to let go. It’s time for a rest.”
So be forewarned. You’ve only got a few weeks left to sample some of Hsiu Yu’s famous specialties and bid the family a fond farewell. Leave a little bigger tip as a way of saying thanks for all of the tireless efforts that have ensured that there would always be a little of the Orient in the ’09 diet. And for those who might be fearing withdrawal, relax. The Yus are writing a soon-to-be-released cookbook featuring many of the Hsiu Yu favorites, including spicy shredded chicken, Moo Shee pork and much more. Why, after preparation you just might think you’re back at Hsiu Yu! Well, almost.