Plum Garden: A McHenry Icon
Plum Garden is rich with Chinese tradition and one-of-a-kind dishes that keep generations of customers coming back.
When Perry Moy and his mother, Connie, got off the train at the McHenry station in 1965, there wasn’t much to see. A bank, a post office and the train station were among the few structures that occupied Main Street.
As they walked, they came across a man washing the windows of a vacant building.
“There was this big man washing the window right here,” Moy said. “I said to him, ‘how much to rent this building?’ He said, ‘How about $70 a month and I’ll throw in utilities and you can live upstairs.’”
That was the start of what is now the longest running single-owner restaurant in the county.
Moy was 15 at the time, and from the day Plum Garden opened, he chopped all of the days’ vegetables and meats for the restaurant before walking to McHenry High School. The day he graduated, he walked straight to work to begin a life-long career as a restaurateur. By age 18, he worked 16-hour days for his mother, who could not read or write when she started the business, but taught him the art of Chinese cooking.
“She gave me a foundation of cooking,” Moy said, adding that she learned cooking from working at his great uncle’s Chinese restaurant in Park Ridge. “I began to create the recipes. Every dish on the menu was created by me.”
Without the money for college, Moy never attended but learned all he needed to know about cooking and running his businesses from fellow restaurateurs.
“Where I got my formal education was from my other chef friends in McHenry County,” he said.
More Than a Million Sold
While regulars come to Plum Garden for various dishes, the favorite by far is Hong Kong Chicken, Moy said, with more than one million servings sold. Moy created the dish when he was 18, and it is still the most requested menu item. A battered, fried breast of chicken on a bed of Chinese greens covered in a special sauce makes up the dish, originally whipped up for a special Chinese New Year’s menu.
“We have our ‘working menu,’ but we create specials all the time,” Moy said.
This year’s Chinese New Year’s menu included Chrysanthemum soup and Heaven’s Cloud–a blend of steak, chicken and shrimp, Chinese greens, baby corn and straw mushrooms in a pungent sauce. His customers are up for any new dish, he said.
“Our customers feel so secure with our style of cooking,” he said. “We’ve got generation after generation of customers coming back.”
Key to making every dish to perfection are fresh ingredients brought to the restaurant daily from Chicago markets. “I used to go to the market [in Chicago] every day myself and buy my own meats and vegetables,” Moy said. “In the 60s and 70s, you didn’t have companies coming out to McHenry County [to deliver food].”
Dragons of All Sorts
Rich with Chinese tradition, the quaint dining area offers colorful dragons draping down from the ceiling for diners to enjoy.
“Those are traditional, ceremonial dragons,” Moy said.
Other not-so-traditional dragons also stand out in the dining area. Moy commissioned an artist to create the creatures, made of three-dimensional neon lights, to boldly mark the dining area walls. Moy admits it was a drastic decorating move but says the fire-breathing works of art have gone over well with customers.
Other marks of the Moy family heritage are seen around the restaurant, such as black Chinese characters painted on red panels around the room–the words to a poem about how the wind changes our life, Moy said. Even the restaurant’s name has the family mark—Moy means plum in Chinese.
Moy takes carrying on the business for his mom, who passed away two years ago, seriously. With his sister Maxine also working at the restaurant, Moy employs 28 workers to keep his establishment humming. His rich tradition in the food he serves and the dining area’s ambiance keep regulars coming back despite the influx of new restaurants in the county.
“When I first started, there were three Chinese restaurants in the county,” Moy said.
Although business is steady, like every other restaurant in the area, the hundreds of new eating establishments built in McHenry County have taken their toll, he said.
“Over the course of the years, people have more choices,” he said. “Whenever a restaurant opens it impacts you.”
Nothing has changed Moy’s passion for Chinese cooking or for his beloved restaurant.
“I have a passion for cooking,” he said. “I have a passion for cuisine.”
Plum Garden is located at 3917 West Main St. in McHenry. Call 815-385-1530 for more information.