My glorious Citizens! Unless you live in the Golden State of California, you might not be aware that there is a Gubernatorial recall election attempt shaking the halls of power in the state capital of Sacramento!
Personally, TFD is weary of all things political after the last several years, but in a nod to this unavoidable situation, I (in My infinite mercy) have decided to recreate a legendary recipe from the city to grace the palates of TFD Nation – Democrats, Republicans and others alike – in a reminder that politics divides, but cuisine unites! That said, I am honored to be friends with the Honorable Josh Becker, one of the newest members of the State Assembly, and I hereby dedicate this recipe posting to honor his good name and bipartisan efforts!
Brandy fried chicken is the signature dish of Frank Fat’s restaurant, a nearly century-old landmark adjacent to the corridors of power that is a favorite haunt of members of the State Assembly!
Frank Fat’s is an American Chinese cuisine restaurant in Sacramento, California founded in 1939 by a Chinese immigrant who called himself “Frank Fat” and who came to the United States illegally in 1919. The original restaurant is one of four now owned by the Fat family.
Frank Fat’s celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2019, and is the oldest restaurant still operating in Sacramento. The restaurant has a long-standing reputation as a place where influential California politicians come to drink, dine and negotiate with lobbyists in private, and it also serves a well-known banana cream pie. The restaurant has won two major culinary awards.
Dong Sai-Fat was born near Canton in 1904 and used falsified documents to come to San Francisco in 1919, evading the race-based Chinese Exclusion Act, which was later repealed. He was a ‘paper son’ with a created identity of Wong Bing Yuen, supposedly the son of a U.S. citizen who had returned to China.
A member of China’s Taishanese ethnic group, he arrived at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. He took Frank Fat as his American name.
Initially, he worked at his uncle’s Sacramento restaurant called Hong King Lum, and also worked in laundries and orchards in the Midwest. In 1924, he returned to China where he entered into an arranged marriage with Yee Lai-Ching (Mary Fat), and they had a child in 1926.
In those years, he spent time with a wealthy cousin, active in the Kuomintang political party, who taught him about the influence of money in politics. After the death of that cousin, Frank Fat returned to the United States without his wife and child, and ten years of hard work passed before he was able to afford to bring his family to California. He and his wife then had five more children, and he returned to work at his uncle’s Sacramento restaurant.
After 20 years of labor throughout the United States and China – he was still working as a waiter at his uncle’s restaurant when a state official won $900 playing keno, but left before collecting his prize. Fat protected the winning ticket for weeks until the man returned and received his money. In appreciation for his honesty, the man agreed in 1939 to help Fat finance his own restaurant just two blocks away from the California State Capitol building.
In the restaurant’s early years, Frank and Mary Fat and their children raised chickens and grew corn, bok choy, gai lan, bitter melon and squashes on an acre of land a few miles away. The restaurant was called Frank’s 806 back then, because of the prominence of the street number on its neon sign.
Because of the restaurant’s location so close to the capitol, and its growing reputation for good food, excellent service and privacy, Frank Fat’s soon became popular with state legislators and lobbyists. Every California governor has been a customer since the restaurant opened.
Former governor Earl Warren, later Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was a regular customer for many years, and had a personal friendship with Fat. Former governor Jerry Brown has also been a customer for over 40 years, and attended the restaurant’s 80th birthday party.
As the years passed, Frank and Mary Fat became increasingly involved with civic affairs and political activism in support of Chinese-American interests. Mary supported the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and Frank backed education and lobbying efforts.
In 1987, legislative leaders Willie Brown and Bill Lockyer negotiated a five year compromise deal on tort reform at Frank Fat’s, with representatives of a wide variety of interest groups. All the stakeholders signed off on one of the restaurant’s linen napkins.
Frank Fat died in 1997 and Mary Fat died in 1999. When Frank Fat died, U. S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Sacramento native, wrote, “There was a grace and dignity and decency in the man that I sensed even as a child . . . There was stability, too, coming from the confidence and humanity he used to bridge time and generations and to arch two civilizations.” Their restaurants are still family owned and operated.
As a result of lobbying reform, stricter enforcement of alcohol laws and competition from a thriving Sacramento restaurant scene, the clientele has shifted in the 21st century from politicians and lobbyists to a more general dining audience.
The restaurant’s 80th anniversary celebration was attended by former governor Jerry Brown, former Speaker of the California State Assembly Willie Brown and former California state legislator and U.S. Congressman John Burton.
As further noted on the restaurant’s own website:
In 2019, the Fat Family Restaurant Group celebrated 80 years of service and proudly took its place as the oldest restaurant in Sacramento to be owned exclusively by one family.
Back in 1939 when Frank Fat opened his namesake restaurant, he never would have guessed his humble establishment would be filled with notable politicians, as well as people from all walks of life—from Sacramento and beyond.
Frank had a genuine interest in feeding people quality food—and he did so in a way that truly made them feel special. His influence guided the opening of Fat City Bar & Café in Old Sacramento in 1976, Fat’s Asia Bistro & Dim Sum Bars in Roseville (2000) and Folsom (2004) and Fat’s Catering (1980). Today, every Fat’s restaurant strives to maintain the Frank Fat tradition: handcrafted, culinary excellence delivered with incomparable service.
While the cuisine offered at each Fat’s restaurant may vary—with French, Italian, American and Asian-inspired dishes gracing the menus—they all integrate classic flavors, fresh ingredients, innovative culinary techniques and modern-day fine dining.
In March of 2013, Frank Fat’s received the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award—an honor bestowed upon locally owned and operated restaurants that are the fabric of their community.
The award was further proof that the exceptional culinary experiences and consistently spectacular service had not gone unnoticed. Today, each menu flourishes with an evolving vision of new dishes, as well as the classics that helped make the Fat Family Restaurant Group the culinary institution that it is today.
The Michelin Guide also recognizes the restaurant and has this to say on the topic:
Celebrated as the “third house” because of its popularity among politicians making deals in the back booths, this venerable Chinese-American jewel has been family owned since 1939. Step inside and you’ll be transported into another era by way of a retro bar serving up happy-hour martinis and an elegant dining room attended to by tie-wearing servers and festooned with valuable relics.
The menu is as much of a throwback as the décor, with yu kwok (crispy beef, pork and water chestnut dumplings) sharing equal billing with not-so-Chinese items, including banana cream pie. But don’t be dissuaded by the seeming inauthenticity as everything is beautifully executed, from the fried chicken marinated with brandy and ginger to addictive garlic-chili green beans.
It’s important to recognize that while Frank Fat’s unquestionably serves delicious food, it is not an authentic Chinese restaurant – and that is by no means casting aspersions on a place that has justly earned its accolades! It has created its own unique fusion that is a melange of different cuisines across Europe, America and Asia and brandy fried chicken is a delicious example of their thoughtful approach to food.
I believe I have been successful in My attempt to both replicate their recipe and at the same time to bring it a little closer to its Chinese roots. I’ve noted what changes I made in this regard so you can choose to incorporate them or to make a version closer to Frank Fat’s original recipe. Either way – you’re in for a delicious treat to share with friends and family alike at your table! The brandy makes the chicken incredibly moist and succulent and the other marinade ingredients contribute their inimitable flavors as well!
Frank Fat’s uses a cut-up half a chicken, I also enjoy it made with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The original recipe uses California brandy alone, I use a blend of brandy and shaoxing wine (dry Sherry can substitute). Frank Fat’s uses flour alone in their breading and dredge, I use both flour and cornstarch to up the crispiness factor in a more classically-Chinese preparation.
This recipe calls for chicken powder, a standard item in Chinese restaurant cooking that is basically just a ground-up chicken bouillon cube – the MSG and salt are critical to the success of the recipe tasting like the original version! Lastly, I use a touch of Chinese 13-spice powder (王守义 十三香) in the breading, feel free to omit it for the original. You can easily buy 13-spice powder on Amazon here.
Citizens, this is a delicious and unique fusion recipe that is legendary in Sacramento for a good reason and is not hard to make. Consider serving it with another beloved Chinese-American fusion recipe of deep-fried goodness – egg rolls! Either way, think kindly of Sacramento and meditate on its current political upheaval as you enjoy this meal!
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