Talkin' Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken with Wing Yee Leong | Leong's Asian Diner
1540 W. Republic Rd., Springfield
What started as a menu tweak meant to appeal to southwest Missouri palates turned into a worldwide phenomenon and a local favorite that just won’t quit.
In the kitchen at Leong’s Asian Diner, Wing Yee Leong walks us through the steps that go into making Springfield-style cashew chicken. As he explains how the restaurant preps the chicken (battering and blanching it before it is fried a second time to order), we see one of his employees starting that breading process with two giant bins of chicken. On racks across from him are tray after tray of blanched chicken. Even now, 56 years after Leong’s dad David Leong invented the dish and nine years after Wing Yee opened the restaurant, they’re still churning out an enormous volume every day. Wing Yee has spotted the dish touted on billboards across the United States and even outside Hong Kong restaurants: Springfield-style cashew chicken sold here! “Behold the power of cashew chicken,” Wing Yee says.
By now, most locals probably know the backstory of the Leong family’s relationship to Springfield dining, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version. In the 1940s, David Leong was working at a restaurant in Florida after a tour in the U.S. Army during World War II. A Springfield surgeon dined there, loved David’s food and lured the budding chef up to Missouri to share his food with 417-land. For a while he worked at Lotus Garden and Grove Supper Club restaurants before venturing out on his own to open Leong’s Tea House in 1963.
Starting his own restaurant wasn’t without its challenges. David faced racism, and Wing Yee believes a dynamite explosion at the restaurant shortly before it was set to open was no coincidence. For the most part, Asian dining didn’t really exist yet in the Ozarks, and that was a hurdle for David. But he persevered, and his restaurant—which featured white tablecloths and a fine dining–level service—began to gain a following.
David knew he could please more customers if he married his authentic Cantonese cuisine with something that he believed would appeal to a southwest Missouri palate: fried chicken. He modified traditional cashew chicken stir fry by adding the fried meat he saw on menus around town, topped the fried chicken with cashews and an oyster sauce–based gravy, then sprinkled on some green onions. It was a hit, and the rest is history.
As the dish grew in popularity, other restaurants around town created their own takes on the recipe and started to serve Springfield-style cashew chicken as well. And in 1997, Leong’s Tea House—the most beloved cashew chicken purveyor in town—closed its doors.