Angie Ripple | Thursday Dec. 1st, 2022
When you arrive at the Wok in Belgrade, you are sure to be met with a kind hello and a warm smile. If you are showing up any weekday for lunch, this greeting will almost assuredly come from Carolyn B, the pony-tailed blonde who has been keeping the Wok’s owner, Mingh Zhu, on track for the past thirteen years. Carolyn was hired to cover for a hostess taking maternity leave; the hostess never returned, and Carolyn never left!
Mingh and his family speak very little English, but they work from open to close every day of the week, cooking delicious Chinese food. His 75 year old father washes dishes and chops vegetables, while Mingh is the sole chef. Our interview was a patchwork of me speaking to Carolyn, customers entering for a late lunch, Mingh sitting with me, a phone call to his former business partner and good friend, Fai, who answered many of my questions, and Mingh and Carolyn getting orders out. The team works extremely well together, language barriers and all.
From the entryway, a gentleman loudly calls to Carolyn, letting her know they are here for lunch and ready to be seated wherever is easy. They accept her offer of hot tea on this blustery, snowy day.
Carolyn calls to Mingh, letting him know he’ll have to come out, either to help with customers or speak to me. He chooses to speak to me, which I find entertaining, and I ask my first question.
“What do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?” He pulls out his phone to call Fai in Salt Lake City. After speaking Chinese he tells me, “My friend will answer.”
Fai: I understand you’re going to interview him? Because he offers such great Chinese food?
Fai: Aha, I’ve known him so long; we used to be partners. I moved to Utah and he bought me out, but we talk almost once a week. He’s my buddy, and I’m happy to help him to answer any questions that you have. First, you need to know that he specializes in Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine. One is not spicy, but general: oyster sauce, soy sauce, Belize sauce. The Szechuan is spicy, so you’ve got both.
Angie: OK, great; I just asked, ‘what do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?’
Fai: What he wants the customer to experience is fresh vegetables and fresh meat cooked to order. And a comfortable, family dining experience. That’s what he aims to provide.
(Mingh and Fai speak again on the phone)
Fai: So what’s next?
Angie: What do your regulars keep coming back for?
Fai: The regulars come because they’ve known the waitress for so long. The waitress has been here for over ten years. So, first is the friendship, you know, the bonding. But Covid changed everything. Now, most people order delivery (the Wok has one dedicated delivery driver on staff, and has added Door Dash as well), or pickup. People can come; they know the food is right there, quick and easy.
Carolyn B: The food, obviously, is good, but my regulars know me, and I know their faces, so basically I tell them what their order is before they remember to tell me what their order is. That’s the cool thing about being around here so long—you just see the same familiar faces and it’s fun to serve them, and to shock them, too, because they don’t expect me to remember them from the last time, and that’s kinda cool.
Angie: What would you say is the most popular menu item?
Carolyn B: Sweet & Sour Chicken, for sure.
Fai: Always the combo meal, the big plate combo that has the Sweet and Sour Chicken, the chow mein, the fried rice, and the shrimp. What customers like most is the chow mein, the fried rice, the sweet and sour chicken, the broccoli beef, and sesame chicken. For appetizers, customers love the crab rangoon.
Angie: What makes The Wok unique in the local food scene?
Fai: As you know, there are not many Asian food restaurants in Bozeman, Belgrade, or Gallatin County, so that is unique, number one. Secondly, when you’ve been around for more than ten years, you become a historic landmark in the area. And when you only hire locals—all the servers, all the bussers, all the hosts, then you blend in and become part of the community. I think this makes The Wok unique. It’s family-owned, but also it’s a community; the locals work together to make the business a success.
Angie: What does Mingh like best about being a part of the Belgrade community? What does he do when he’s not at work?
Carolyn B: (From the distance) Sleep.
Fai: Of course, I could tell you he likes hiking, he likes skiing, all that fun stuff, but the truth is that when you’re in the restaurant business you very good at your job, man! (Laughter). Always someone doesn’t show up, always something happens and you need to rush back. Let me give you a little insight about Mingh, the history of Mingh. From day one, he’s a chef. Other regular Chinese chefs may be plumbers and electricians, or a chef because they need to make a living, but he went to culinary school and, after he graduated, worked for this big, fancy Chinese restaurant in China, and worked his way up—food prep, dishes, fry chef, sauté chef… so, he’s had the passion from day one. For people with passion like this, for his free time the most enjoyable thing he would do is watch the Food Channels, and YouTube or Netflix. He will also go [out to] eat, and see how people cook the food. I would say, don’t be fooled by his skinny, small size body shape— he likes to eat. And he likes to go to Vegas and visit fancy restaurants just to try it out and see how people cook the food. That way, when he comes back he knows what he can do to improve things. That’s the Mingh I know.
Carolyn B: I enjoy seeing my customers’ faces when I’m not at work, just shopping over at Town & Country, at the movies or whatever. I know them, and I know they know me, but because I’m not in my usual environment, it takes a minute for them to realize where they know me from. It is a community, and being able to see everyone outside of work is always nice, too.
Angie: Is there anything special coming up in December?
Fai: It has become the restaurant’s tradition to close on Thanksgiving, and it’s always closed for Christmas. It makes sure everyone has a great Christmas, and can go away if they want to.
Mingh: Carolyn, she is my favorite employee. She has been working for me for almost fifteen years; she is awesome.
Carolyn B: I am happy that I have been here this long, and serving this community and these people for so long. It’s really been a lot of fun. I am proud of the food, and I’m proud of what my boss does, for being here so long and just plugging away every day of the week, every single day. It’s pretty amazing to see.
The Wok is located at 312 W Main St #10, Belgrade. They open every day at 11:15 AM, and close at 9 PM Sunday – Thursday, and at 9:30 PM on Friday and Saturday. You are sure to find a friendly face and delicious Chinese food each and every day at The Wok. Whenever you go, please, tell Carolyn, “Hi from Bozeman Magazine.”