Like the Columbia River Gorge, the land that is home to the cuisines reflected on the menu at Grace Su’s is one of highs and lows. China’s Yangtze River falls more than 16,000 feet as it flows from the mountains of Tibet, through Szechuan Province and into the East China Sea at Shanghai. The middle portion of the river winds through spectacular gorges.
“The land forms and rivers here in Columbia Gorge remind us of those regions of China,” says Grace Su, who helped start, owns and operates the China Gorge with her husband, Kokdjen (pronounced “Chin”) Su.
As the world’s most populous nation, China has spread its influences around the world — including the Columbia Gorge — sometimes by way of other nations.
Grace and Djen, for instance, both grew up in the Chinese minority population of the world’s largest Islamic country, Indonesia.
Raised Christian in the family of a Presbyterian church, Grace and her brother, Steve Tan, came to Seattle at the urging of a pastor friend. Both attended school at the University of Washington, Grace graduating with a degree in business administration and her brother with a degree in architecture.
He returned eventually to Indonesia, where he is an architect heavily involved in getting the long-planned Jakarta Tower project off the ground. If completed, it would be the world’s second tallest building.
Before he headed back to Indonesia, Steve invited Grace to join him on a trip to a conference in Portland in 1975. He met a girl from Taiwan, who noticed that he was wearing an Indonesian batik shirt. She said she knew a group of Indonesians. One of them was Kok Djen Su.
Two years later, Grace and Djen were married. Djen, while finished his master’s degree in electrical engineering and power at Portland State University, had decided he wanted to stay in the United States. But a quota on immigration led him to explore other paths that would allow him and Grace to remain in the United States. He learned that if he bought a business that employed U.S. citizens, he could get a resident visa.
He first explored buying into a soy sauce business in Portland. When that didn’t work out, he turned his eyes east.
“He used to like to fish in the Hood River area,” Grace says. “He saw this restaurant for sale — The Sundown. It served American-style food.”
They bought it, in 1979. Finished in a faux log decor, the restaurant required extensive remodeling to get it ready for a Chinese menu.
“At first, Djen did a lot of the cooking himself,” Grace says.
Now, most of that is handled by chef Weixiong “a Hong” Wu.
The recipes at the China Gorge are based on the traditions of Hunan and Szechuan provinces. They aren’t the sort of dishes eaten every day. “The daily diet in China is very simple,” Grace says. “The selections we prepare are usually served at special occasions.”
These recipes traditionally feature a lot of garlic, hot red pepper and other spices. “If you prefer milder spices, tell us when you order,” Grace says.
She notes that the recipes at the China Gorge use no MSG.
After establishing themselves in Hood River, Grace and Djen had achieved only part of their dream. Twenty-four years ago, they achieved another part — both became naturalized U.S. citizens
Grace says Djen’s studies help him take care of electrical and mechanical maintenance at the China Gorge. As for herself, she says she never thought she’d be running a Chinese restaurant when she was completing her college studies, but she loves it just the same.
“I love the public,” she says. “I love the people.”
Admitting that a lot of hard work has gone into their 33 years of success, she says her faith had more to do with it.
“I credit God’s grace,” she says. “It has been sustaining. It put me in this small beautiful town that we love.”
And her role in the restaurant?
“I usually tell people I’m the chief bottle washer,” she says.
Does she actually wash bottles?
“No,” she says, with a laugh.
It’s a metaphor for “doing it all.” Which she pretty much has, since diving into the melting pot.