By Ben Falik
Happy You Chinese Restaurant speaks for itself. It is whole, sound and, like Clark’s Wallabees or Total Eclipse of the Heart, cannot be improved upon. If it were a product of this era, it would be happYou and it would promise some industry-disrupting life hack that would end up just being quinoa paste and a Magic Eye poster.
Happily for me, Alex and So Chu decided to open a restaurant in the waning days of the last century, when happiness was less about the instant gratification of handheld technology (excepting the length of one’s Discman skip protection) and more about what David Brooks described last week as “defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence.”
“By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission,” Brooks argues, “they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.”
When Alexis shared her parents’ retirement news online last month, I took solace in the continuity of cuisine with Chef Paul as the new owner. But at 20 plus years, Happy You may be my longest adult relationship. I needed closure. Also lunch.
Born in Hong Kong in 1951, Alex grew up swimming competitively and developing pictures in his home darkroom. In 1971, the Chu family emigrated; his older sister stayed behind, ineligible to join them.
The addition of eight new residents still left Holbrook, Ariz., with fewer than 5,000 people. Holbrook — once “the town too tough for women and churches,” the seat of Navajo County and beneficiary of Chinese rail laborers — had one Chinese restaurant, owned by Alex’s uncle.
After two years in Holbrook, Alex went into near-constant motion until his journey culminated in a Keego Harbor storefront. First, San Francisco, home to extended family. Then seven years on the road — working in Chinese restaurants and taking stock of the variations in quality and service — that led him to Michigan.
On his first trip back to Hong Kong, he reconnected with old family friends, including So.
They settled in Michigan and started a family, but Alex’s drive kept him moving. Birmingham Carrie Lee’s. Head chef at Carrie Lee’s Lake Garden in Waterford. Peking House in Royal Oak. Then Manchu Wok, training and district management for 20 locations as far afield as Minnesota and Iowa.
The Tao of Alex, “Happy You,” served as pledge and promise to customers and his family. He chose Keego Harbor to be close to home and designed the kitchen to be open — visible from the tables and even the sidewalk — to showcase his fresh, made-to-order fare.
Senior year of high school, Keego Harbor was about as far as I could get before my underdeveloped sense of direction would betray me and make me tarde for Señora Kulhavi’s class. It might have been a journey of 10,000 miles for Alex to develop his all-natural General Tsao recipe, but it took only a single step for me to surrender.
Happy You had everything, except a serviceable water pitcher, so I picked up a Brita during my semi-weekly sample smorgasbord at Costco. (Pour one out for Andover open lunch.) With her smile radiating from behind the counter, So reciprocated with a free lunch worth more than the gift.
It hardly seemed fair to limit the happy we to those seniors who could fit in my Saturn station wagon. Like most of my ventures since, the Wassify Weekly Friday Fried Rice delivery service subscribed to the Vaudeville school of business — we lost money on every sale but made it up on volume.
The dividends were clear: lo mein liberation for freshmen whose pantries were suffering under the brutal Y2K Atkins regime. Three of our carbed-up customers went on to work at the Happy You.
According to Waleed Brinjikji, now a radiologist at the Mayo Clinic, “Working there as busboy/waiter/fry boy/dishwasher/janitor/chicken cleaner in high school was a great experience and taught me so much about hard work … and … don’t throw away the chicken feet!”
Just as Alex has shared his good fortune with those around him, I feel I can share my fortune, courtesy of cookie, with him:
“You will continue to take chances and be glad you did.”