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Wong's Cafe revived in grandson's music

Guitarist Cory Wong brings 50-year Rochester restaurant to a third generation.

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Twin Cities guitarist Cory Wong
Contributed / Austin Lord

ROCHESTER — A longtime Rochester restaurant has a second life via its owner’s grandson’s music.

Guitarist Cory Wong released a new album, “ Wong’s Cafe, ” named after his family’s 50-year business.

“My grandparents started the restaurant, and my uncles took it over,” Wong said. “To have another generation of Wong’s Cafe in our bloodline feels kind of fun.”

Wong, a Twin Cities resident, has plenty of childhood memories from the restaurant — “just being a kid, going there, and watching my grandmother chop vegetables downstairs.”

“When we would have all of our family gatherings, we would meet up at the restaurant,” Wong said. “I remember just being a kid, going back there, and making my way into the walk-in refrigerator, because I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to have a fridge that was so big, you could walk in and grab an Orangina.”

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Wong’s grandparents, Neil and Poya, opened the restaurant in 1952 on Third Street SW, then moved to the corner of South Broadway and Third in 1983.

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After his grandparents retired, Wong’s uncles Mike and Dennis ran the restaurant until 2005 , when they sold the business to head chef Phala Nhean .

Dennis Wong still owns the Dunn Brothers locations in Rochester, but Wong’s Cafe skipped around from the Hillcrest Shopping Center to Cedarwood Plaza , before a name change to “ Cantonese Cafe.

In its heyday, Wong’s Cafe was a downtown staple . With a mix of American and Chinese menu items, just about every visitor could find something they liked.

Wong is a member of Vulfpeck , a funk band with members based all over the U.S.

The Vulf Vault is a series of albums focusing on each member — a compilation of each song featuring singer Antwaun Stanley, for example, or compositions by Woody Goss.

“For mine, I was thinking, ‘The Cory Wong Vulf Vault, what should that be?’” he said.

Wong decided it would be more fun for him to produce new music for his own entry, rather than assemble old music for a re-release. So he turned to old Vulfpeck recordings to look for songs that hadn’t made it onto previous albums.

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Wong released three albums in 2021, then Wong’s Cafe hit shelves on Jan. 7.

“I have the philosophy that creativity is a vine that blossoms — a flower that blossoms, rather than a gas tank that empties,” he said. “I’ve been on this creative streak, and I thought, ‘What if I take this hard drive full of songs we haven’t released, and make it … a little more guitar-focused.’”

After Wong produced a few new pieces, it was time to give the project a name.

Jack Stratton the “band leader,” asked about titles, but to no avail.

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Wong’s Café was located at 20 Third St. SW in downtown Rochester before moving to Northwest Rochester. (Contributed photo from the History Center of Olmsted County)

“Literally that day, my dad sent us a photo,” Wong said. “He’s like, ‘hey, check out this fun, old picture of the restaurant from its original location!’”

He sent the photo to Stratton.

“Jack’s like, ‘That needs to be the album name, doesn’t it?’” Wong said. “And that picture is the album artwork.”

Listen to “Wong’s Cafe” on Spotify or Bandcamp , or see https://vulfpeck.com to order a physical copy. Cory Wong will play First Avenue in Minneapolis on Feb. 19 as part of his solo tour .

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