RELICS: The Huie legacy, Chinese cuisine have long history in Duluth
One would have to go back a long time to remember when a member of the Huie family didn’t have a restaurant in Duluth. It’s possible, in fact, that no one is left in Duluth who remembers that day.
The Huie legacy goes back even further than most realize. Most Duluthians remember the Chinese Lantern, a famous Duluth landmark and tourist destination in its own right. Many remember even further back to Joe Huie’s Café, a small diner on the corner of Lake Avenue and Michigan Street — where the Minnesota Power Building stands now.
The Huies were making their presence known in the Twin Ports even earlier than that. There is some debate as to when Joe Huie first immigrated to Duluth, with dates ranging from 1909 to 1925, but there is no doubt he came to Duluth from China to work for a relative who owned and operated a downtown Duluth restaurant called the St. Paul Restaurant.
By 1951, Joe Huie was ready to open his own establishment. Joe Huie served both American food and Chinese food, but the most famous dish was the jumbo butterfly shrimp. It could be purchased with fried rice, but since Huie knew some of his customers weren’t yet ready for such an exotic food item, the shrimp could also be purchased with a side of French fries and gravy.
Sharon Pearson of Superior still has a menu from the café. Her husband was childhood friends with former Duluth mayor Gary Doty, and the two of them met at Joe Huie’s Café often. It was thought to be the first 24-hour restaurant in town, and was definitely the only at the time of its operation. “We never close, lost key,” claimed a sign hung outside Joe Huie’s Cafe. “It was definitely a stereotypical 24-hour diner,” Pearson said. “It was kind of run down and greasy looking, but it was always busy.”
Joe Huie’s Café closed when the Metropole Hotel next door was demolished. Fans of the food weren’t left craving, as his son Wing Ying Huie had already opened the Chinese Lantern on the corner of Superior Street and 4th Avenue West (where Maurice’s Headquarters stands now). Departing from the diner model, the Chinese Lantern was meant to be a fine dining establishment, a place locals and travelers would seek out.
Still serving the popular butterfly shrimp, the restaurant served both American and Chinese food. Some people remember the American-style hamburgers with fondness, others the egg foo young. When the restaurant outgrew its Superior Street location, it moved into the Duluth Athletic Club Building up the avenue on First Street and opened the Brass Phoenix Nightclub upstairs.
It was a heyday for the popular Duluth restaurant. Paul Lundgren, president (or as he prefers to be called, the Grand Poobah) of the local website Perfect Duluth Day, remembers how popular the restaurant and nightclub both were. “One of the best things about turning 18 was I was finally able to get into the dry nights at the Brass Phoenix,” Lundgren said. “I was very excited about it, but I don’t actually remember being in the nightclub, only standing in the stairwell waiting to get in.” Lundgren still possesses a T-shirt from the Lantern/Phoenix.
Hockey teams that came to town to play the UMD Bulldogs made a point eating at the Chinese Lantern. Celebrity photos graced the walls, such as Walter Mondale, Jay Leno and Bob Hope. People around the Twin Ports celebrated date nights and special events at the Lantern. Customers celebrating their birthday at the Lantern were even sent home with a special gift, a birthday teapot. Sue Haver of Superior still owns her teapot, as well as a highball glass, a matchbook, and a set of stir sticks. “The Lantern was a great place to eat,” Haver said. “It was so fancy, and the staff went out of their way to make all the diners feel important.”
The Chinese Lantern was still riding high when disaster struck. The Brass Phoenix caught fire on Jan. 16, 1994, during a record cold night, destroying the Phoenix and severely damaging the Chinese Lantern. Lisa Anderson of Duluth remembers the date well — it was the night she gave birth to her first child. “I was a little busy with other things,” Anderson said, laughing, “but I remember a nurse coming in and telling us that the Chinese Lantern was on fire, and everyone in the room except me ran to the window.”
Anderson gave birth to a healthy boy named Grady, but she did lament the loss of the Lantern. She and her husband had spent many date nights there, and had even held their rehearsal dinner at the Lantern the night before their wedding.
The Huie family decided not to rebuild after the fire, instead taking the opportunity to retire. Duluth was not left Huie-less, however. Soon after the fire, Huie nephew Ping Huie and his wife Lee opened Huie’s Chopsticks Inn on Fourth Street and 5th Avenue East. There it remains to this day, with Huie and family still offering the same deep-fried butterfly shrimp recipe — amongst other favorites — to a grateful Twin Ports.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works — and enjoys the food scene — in Duluth. This article originally appeared in Duluth.com magazine, which can be found in stores around Duluth or read online.