Loyal diners pack Boise’s Oriental Express on its final day

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comJanuary 1, 2014 

Before Boisean Jim Lyons dug into a steaming plate of egg foo young Tuesday afternoon, he paused to take an Instagram photo of his lunch.

Lyons is a foodie and a social media afficionado. But that wasn’t the reason he was documenting his dish.

“All hands on deck today — last lunch for a Boise Downtown institution. #willbemissed,” he captioned another photo in the restaurant.

After 17 years in business, the Golden Phoenix Oriental Express served its last supper Tuesday.

The restaurant, on 11th Street across from the Neurolux, has been inundated with customers since the Statesman told readers Dec. 17 of Socheng “Jimmy” Yuan’s plans to close the beloved Downtown eatery.

“I’m really going to miss it,” said Lyons, whose 25-year-old son, Connor, was friends with the Yuans’ son Jonathan when they were students at Boise High School. The boys and their high school friends used to come down to the restaurant every Wednesday.

“They just make you feel like family,” said Kris Sturgill, a longtime customer who agreed to help out over the past couple of weeks. Dressed in a blue silk Chinese vest, Sturgill took orders alongside two of the three Yuan children, Sarah, 18, and Dean, who turns 17 on New Year’s Day.

The Boise homemaker said two of her children also worked at the restaurant over the years, and she filled in when needed. She’ll miss the tasty post-lunch rush meals she shared with the Yuans and the “ancient Chinese secrets” they’ve shared to help relieve stress and migraines.

The restaurant isn’t closing for financial reasons. In fact, Jimmy Yuan said he doesn’t ever recall a period when business was so slow that he considered closing.

Yuan, 62, and wife, Chau, 51, are closing the business after working six days a week — up to 12 hours a day — since opening the restaurant in 1996.

“It’s just time,” Jimmy Yuan said. “Everything is timing.”

NAME FROM A PRESIDENT

Jimmy Yuan’s parents fled northern China when the Communists took over in the late 1940s, and he grew up in Taiwan.

Jimmy never planned to become a restaurateur. He worked as an electrical engineer for four years before deciding he wanted to travel and try something new.

After two of his brothers came to the United States and opened a restaurant in Phoenix in the late 1970s, he pursued a master’s degree in international trade while working at their business. He took the nickname “Jimmy,” after then-president Jimmy Carter, because it was easier for people to say and remember. He had no particular fondness for Carter.

He worked as a wholesale importer for a few years, then helped his sister open a Chinese restaurant in Billings, Mont. By then, he knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

“I don’t want to work for somebody,” said Yuan, who drinks tea and does tai chi each morning before making one or all of eight sauces for the restaurant’s cuisine.

The climates of Billings and Phoenix didn’t suit Yuan. He recalled falling in love with Boise one rainy spring day in the mid-1990s — the refreshing aroma of that spring day lingers.

FAMILY RECIPES

Chau Yuan was the head cook, and, by all accounts, meticulous and masterful in the kitchen. She and Jimmy made many friends by showing genuine interest in the lives of their customers.

“We always like coming here because of the owners — they were always so friendly,” said Ann Bailey, who enjoyed a last lunch there Tuesday with co-worker Lisa Stoner.

Lyons recalled how much time the Yuans spent looking at photos he and his wife took while on a trip to Hong Kong this year. Most people lost interest after a handful.

“They looked at 80 or 100 photos,” he said. “They’re very interested in everything.”

Many of the recipes at Orient Express were Yuan family recipes. The good news for Oriental Express fans is that the Yuans plan to continue selling Chinese cuisine from their food trailer during summer events.

“He retired,” Chau Yuan said. “I’m not retired.”

But for now, the Yuans are looking forward to a relaxing New Year.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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