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Eating Native in Springfield, Missouri

Updated on January 5, 2023

Where's a Good Place to Eat in Springfield, Missouri?

For anyone traveling to Branson Missouri to catch one of their shows, Springfield is where your flight is likely to land. Before taking your rental car south on Route 65, try some of the local cuisines.

Sample Springfield's Chinese Cashew chicken or if you prefer Mexican, try Mexican Villa's Tex-Mex cuisine, and remember to top it off with creamy concrete from Andy's Frozen Custard.

Homemade version of Springfield Cashew Chicken
Homemade version of Springfield Cashew Chicken

Springfield Cashew Chicken

You're not like to find Springfield Chinese Cashew Chicken in any oriental buffet in any other region of the country. This brand of cashew chicken came into Springfield nearly 50 years ago and was the creation of David Leong. It follows the Midwest notion that food isn't good unless it is batter fried and smothered in gravy. This dish has been around in Springfield for over 35 years. It's home style with an Oriental flare at its best. This dish is a must-have dish on every oriental buffet in the city. Even many high classed oriental restaurants in town have been forced to offer this dish.

This cashew chicken is made of deep-fried chicken breast meat covered in a sauce made of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and chicken stock. It is then covered with a scattering of green onions and cashew halves. Natives pick it up from the drive-through for a weeknight dinner or get it for lunch on a weekday special. It is almost always accompanied by fried rice and an egg roll, oriental soup, or deep-fried crab Rangoon. Over 70 oriental restaurants serve Springfield cashew chicken to the 159,498 inhabitants and visitors to this city.

This "Springfield Style Cashew Chicken" is available in other cities as well. It has been designated Sichuan or Cantonese in St. Louis and Kansas City (in Springfield, no categorization is accepted).

Springfield Style Cashew Chicken isn't found just in oriental restaurants. It is also sold at "Ziggies" owned by the Zendelis, an Albanian family served with side dishes. It is available in the school cafeteria. Even the Bass Pro Shops chef also makes it, but since he is a French chef, he adds bourbon to his version of the dish. No fine dining restaurateur can resist the pull of cashew chicken and survive in Springfield. You can't cook Chinese in Springfield without it.

Springfield Cashew Chicken's Creator-David Leong

The creator of Springfield Cashew Chicken, David Leong moved from Guangdong China in 1940 to the US. As a naturalized citizen, he served the US during WWII and was on the fourth wave of troops on Omaha Beach. After the war, he worked in restaurants in Philadelphia, and New Orleans, and finally ended up in Pensacola Florida where he worked at Pirate's Cove. There, he gained popularity with his broiled scallops and flounder braised in sweet and sour sauce. There he met a neurosurgeon from Springfield, John L. K. Tsang who also was a Chinese native. In 1955 Dr. Tsang talked Leong and his brother to open Springfield's first Chinese restaurant "Lotus Garden".

The restaurant failed, but a year later Leong and his brother were serving sweet and sour port and moo goo gai pan and other Chinese dishes at "The Grove" a famous supper club. It was there that Leong began experimenting with frying chicken like Mid-westerners were used to eating and adding Chinese oyster sauce, cashews, and onions. This dish would become cashew chicken.

Leong quit the Grove over a dispute over his wages and started his own restaurant. Leong's Tea House was built during a time when Asian immigrants were looked on suspiciously as "Japanese kamikazes". Loans were tough to obtain.

Less than a week before the new restaurant was due to open in November 1963, someone threw 10 sticks of dynamite at the building and stole the lion statues on either side of the front door. Though the crime was in the local paper, no convictions followed the bigotry-based violence. The immigrant would not be daunted by the pressure. He quickly repaired the damage and opened his 350-seat restaurant a couple of weeks later.

The restaurant did well, and soon other cashew chicken restaurants popped up around town. In 1972 Gee Leong opened Gee's East Wind on the opposite side of town. David's oldest son Cheong Leong opened a number of restaurants under the name House of Cheong.

More Asian-Chinese and then Vietnamese- families moved to Springfield in the 1970s. Many opened Chinese restaurants. The Leong dish, Springfield Chinese Cashew Chicken, became so popular that the Graff Vocational Technical Center began including Cashew Chicken in its training program.

Currently, no Leong family member runs their own restaurant business in Springfield. In 1997, soon after his wife died, David Leong closed Leong's Tea House. In 2000, Gee Leong closed Gee's East Wind and Cheong Leong moved to Las Vegas.

The Sancho Enchilada Style at Mexican Villa, Springfield, Missouri.
The Sancho Enchilada Style at Mexican Villa, Springfield, Missouri.

Mexican Villa

. If you have a hankering for Mexican food with a Midwest 1950s flare, though, the original Mexican Villa at National and Bennett is the place you want to go. Mexican Villa has been in Springfield, Missouri, and maintained quality since 1951. Their vegetables are prepared daily and they make their own tortillas and tortilla chips from scratch at their own tortilla factory. They use USDA-inspected 100% pure beef that they boil in water and drain to reduce fat and cholesterol. All the spice mixes and sauces are made at their factory as well. What you won't find is California-style Mexican food. This is Tex Mex.

The atmosphere is homey with its fifties style paneling and Mexican décor that dates back to the same period. Even the jukeboxes in the booths in the front of the restaurant give you the sense that you've stepped back into a Mexican Cafe of the period of Elvis and the Everly brothers.

You can either seat yourself in one of the booths in the front, or if you have a larger party with you, you can go into the dining room in the back. You'll be greeted by a server who along with your drinks will bring you a basket of freshly made tortilla chips. Homemade hot salsa is already on the table and the server will bring you sweet sauce or mild sauce if you prefer.

Among the choices on the menu is a Mexican Villa favorite, the burrito enchilada style. It comes in half-order or full-order. It is a flour tortilla filled with seasoned beef, refried beans, cheese, and burrito sauce smothered with enchilada sauce and grated cheese sided by shredded lettuce and tomato.

Mexican Villa at National and Bennett as it is today.
Mexican Villa at National and Bennett as it is today.

Mexican Villa's Creator Garin Ferguson

Mexican Villa is one of Springfield's famous food icons that originated during WWII. Garin Ferguson left Springfield to join the fight to preserve freedom during WWII by joining the Army Air Corps in 1943. His first duty station was Aloe Field in Victoria, Texas. There he proposed marriage to his girlfriend Betty in the best way a homesick GI knew--via telegram. They married during his first leave.

Next, he was stationed at Randolph Field in San Antonio, There he fell in love with Tex-Mex food. There the idea of opening his own restaurant selling Tex-Mex was conceived, but it would be several years before his ideas were birthed. After the war, he started the Ferguson Crop Dusting service and dusted and seeded from Springfield to Tunica Mississippi. This crop dusting career lasted 17 years.

In 1951 Garin and Betty bought the Pig-N-Bun a barbecue restaurant at National and Bennett. There they introduced Springfieldians to Tex-Mex food. In the late 1950s, they started another restaurant on Glenstone called "Old Mexico", Springfield's first carry-out restaurant. They leased the Pig-N-Bun to Tommy Lafino and his "Italian Villa". Betty ran the restaurant and Garin crop-dusted.

When Tommy Lafino retired, Mexican Villa replaced the Italian Villa. In the 1960s, El Taco opened and was quickly followed by Villa East Comida, Villa West, Villa South, and El Taco in nearby Ozark.

Andy's Frozen Custard

What's local cuisine without dessert? A relative newcomer to Springfield, Andy's Frozen Custard is a favorite of Springfield locals. It was established by John and Carol Kuntz. They named the business after their son Andy. Although they first located their business in Osage Beach, Missouri in 1986, they soon moved to Springfield. Now, Andy's Frozen Custard, claiming to serve the world’s best custard, is located in four states at 13 locations.

Andy’s Frozen Custard is a quick-service frozen dessert freestanding restaurant with drive-through and walk-up service windows. Andy’s has a wide variety of frozen custard treats (and only frozen custard treats) from simple vanilla or chocolate cones to seasonal favorites. Similar to the DQ blizzard (only better), are their "Concretes" a favorite of many Springfieldians.

Do Other Choices Exist?

Of course, as in any city, the usual restaurant chains do exist. In addition, other local Mom and Pop restaurants are frequented as well, but these three eateries represent some of the best and most unique of what Springfield has to offer. If ever you are in Springfield, be sure to check out this cuisine that makes Springfield, Missouri unique.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2014 Cygnet Brown


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