Joe Huie’s Café — an iconic Duluth landmark — was a modest eatery that became a community hub between its founding in 1951 and its closing in 1973. Owned by an enterprising Chinese immigrant, the restaurant served classic American Chinese, authentic Chinese, and down-home American food to a broad swath of customers with humor and hospitality.
In the storefront window, beneath the neon “chop suey chow mein” sign, was a cardboard sign carefully lettered in bright red paint: OPEN 24 HOURS A DAY BECAUSE WE LOST KEY. Inside, behind the register, stood a Chinese man of indeterminate age with white hair, his posture erect, almost youthful. His sinewy arms were folded and his gaze was intense.
A man walked in and asked loudly, “Hey, old man! Where can I get some good Chinese food?” The Chinese man turned and, with a smile of recognition, replied in mock seriousness, “Say, I hear if you go up to the twelfth floor you can get something to eat.” Although the exchange had been made many times before (it was a two-story building), they both laughed. The customer knew that the best place to get some good Chinese food was, of course, right there, at the restaurant wedged in between a bar and a barber shop on Lake Avenue by the name of Joe Huie’s Café.
Joe Huie, the man behind the register, had hard-learned values. In 1909, he had stepped off the boat from his native Guangzhou, China, and touched American soil for the first time. He was seventeen, nearly penniless, and didn’t speak any English. He immediately boarded a train to Duluth and washed dishes at the St. Paul Café, owned by relatives. After working fifteen hours a day, he attended an English class taught by a nun for an hour. Rarely did he take a day off.
Huie worked for years to save enough money for a restaurant of his own, and in 1951 he bought the Shangri-La Restaurant at 103 Lake Street South. After he reopened it as Joe Huie’s Café, the new business took off. Everything on the menu was fresh, natural, and made from scratch, whether it was egg foo young, more authentic dishes like yetca mein, or liver and onions. The most famous dish was the jumbo butterfly shrimp, which came with a side of fried rice or French fries and gravy. The meals were cheap (fifteen cents for a burger, potatoes, salad, fruit, coffee, and homemade cake), but for those who couldn’t afford it, handouts and eating on credit were common. “If someone came in and had no money,” said one waitress, “Joe would give them a bowl of soup or coffee.”
The décor was simple and functional. “It was comfortable, like eating in somebody’s house,” said one customer. At night, however, it became a carnival as patrons lined up after the bars closed, let in one-by-one by a hired policeman. “Let’s go to Joe Huie’s and people watch,” was an oft-uttered phrase. Stories abounded, and whether true or not, they added to its mystique. Even Elvis Presley allegedly ordered late-night takeout after a performance (though his two tour stops in Duluth occurred after the restaurant closed).
Over the years, Huie made trips back to China to be with his family. But due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted the entry of Chinese people into the United States, his family remained in China during most of his years in Duluth before World War II. Although he brought two sons to Duluth in 1949, after liberalization of US immigration law, it wasn’t until 1954 that his wife and two younger children arrived in the United States. A fifth child was born in Duluth the following year.
When Huie closed the café in 1973 in order to retire, Duluthians mourned as if an old friend had passed away. Duluth’s residents “lost an institution when they lost Joe Huie’s,” said multimillionaire Jeno Paulucci, founder of the Chinese food brand Chun King. Police Chief Eli Miletich recalled that around 1970, when former Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been in a motorcade going up Lake Avenue, “He saw Joe on the street and immediately stopped, jumped out, hugged him, and talked for a good ten minutes while his aides tugged at his sleeves.”
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