The Fong family has been serving Tiki drinks alongside an expansive menu of Chinese fusion creations in a quirky retro atmosphere since 1976. And now their restaurant, Chef Shangri-la, 7930 26th St., is looking back on 45 years in North Riverside.
“I can’t remember the exact date we opened in July, but I wore my prom dress to the grand opening,” said Dr. Lisa (Fong) Abrams, co-owner of Chef Shangri-la. “It was always my parents’ dream to open a restaurant and we are proud to carry on that legacy.”
Susie and Paul Fong ran a Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown prior to opening their festive establishment in North Riverside. Chef Shangri-la means “chef’s paradise” and was created to be a utopia for Paul Fong, whose recipes have been at the center the restaurant’s offerings since opening.
He grounded the menu with his arsenal of Cantonese classics, added spicy dishes to please his customers and embraced island flair with dishes like Shrimp la Fong and Hawaiian pork spareribs.
“The kitchen used to be where the pond is now, and it was so small that we couldn’t even fit three waitresses in there,” said Abrams. “My parents expanded the building in the 1980s to include the large dining room and a new kitchen.”
In the early years, Abrams, her siblings and friends often served as entertainment at Chef Shangri-la. They would perform fan dances and dragon dances on Chinese New Year as firecrackers went off in the parking lot. The restaurant was only closed on Thanksgiving, yet the Fong family would gather among their customers on Christmas and other holidays.
“I had so many family gatherings in this restaurant,” said Abrams. “That is the way my mother wanted it. She wanted her children to come here and have good food together.”
When Irv Abrams picked up his now wife for their first date 33 years ago, he did not go to her house, but met her at Chef Shangri-la. When he told Susie Fong he was there to see her daughter, Susie became agitated and responded by saying, “Lisa who?”
“My mother was so upset,” said Abrams. “Irv isn’t Chinese and that didn’t sit well with her, but in time she grew to love him.”
In fact, when Susie Fong fell seriously ill in 2019, she approached her son-in-law to take over the restaurant she had built with her husband, who died in 2012. Irv Abrams had been planning to retire from a career with Walgreens and never anticipated he would enter a second career in restaurant management, but he could not say no to his mother-in-law. She died in August 2019 just a month after Irv took over Chef Shangri-la.
“When people see me at the restaurant, I know they have a lot of questions about how I came to be in charge,” said Irv Abrams. “But this is still a family-owned business, and we are doing things the way mom would have wanted.”
That starts with making every guest “feel like they are on vacation” and bringing back some classic recipes that had fallen away over the years. All dishes are cooked using family recipes and Chef Shangri-la remains one of the few Tiki bars that also offers a full menu.
No meal is complete at Chef Shangri-la without Dr. Fong by your side. The recipe for the family namesake cocktail is a closely guarded secret, but Abrams is quick to share that she considers it a “safe” choice because of its lower alcohol content. A whimsical ceramic glass can be purchased to hold the rum-based umbrella drink prized for its citrus and peach flavor.
“I am always telling people the cocktail is named after my wife. I am married to Dr. Fong.” said Irv Abrams. “People are really happy they can buy it by the gallon to enjoy at home.”
They also hope to bring back Fong Fest, a music festival complete with Tiki drinks and Chinese appetizers, which was held in the restaurant’s parking lot for several years before the pandemic. They hope the village will allow the festival to go forward and aim to feature performances by the array of celebrity impersonators who bring artists like Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and Diana Ross to life in the dining room on the weekends, when reservations are strongly encouraged.
Loyal customers have kept “The Chef” going for 45 years. Abrams adores seeing longtime customers in the dining room and takes special pride in knowing some regulars are three generations deep into their dedication to dining at Chef Shangri-La.
“Many customers will tell me stories about how their parents had their first date here and how they bring their own children here now,” said Abrams. “Hearing those stories make me feel closer to my mother.”
The Abramses hope to grow the Fong family restaurant legacy by opening a second location in Glenview by the end of the year.