When I first stepped into Fortuna Cafe I didn’t know the significance this special restaurant held in our Chinatown-International District. I didn’t know that the owners, May and Kut Liu, and May’s sister Maggie, had created a special sense of family in the neighborhood. And not just any kind. Fortuna Cafe was one of the last remaining family-owned restaurants that cooked homestyle Chinese food in the International District.
A frequenter of Fortuna, photographer Dean Wong shared his thoughts on their closing, “I was at Sun May, and I turned to Connie and asked her, ‘Where are we going to get food now?’ Because they would bring the food to us right from the restaurant to the alley. They are one of the last old-school Chinatown restaurants.”
For 25 years, the restaurant carried a lot of memories and not just the laughter and joy within the space, but the memories of folks who had passed through it as well.
As May and Kut’s son, Kevin Liu put it, “My mom’s real nice. She treats everybody who comes in like family. She has that very heartwarming personality. She’s basically the heart of Fortuna. My dad’s cooking was the soul of Fortuna.”
Led by husband and wife, May and Kut (also known as Ken), the Liu’s family members were the only workers at Fortuna. Together they were a powerhouse delivering consistently delicious comfort foods and an equally warm atmosphere that kept customers coming back again and again.
They are the type of family that reached out to others, even personally delivering food to some shops when workers were too busy, “When Donnie’s mom was at Sun May’s older location [where Momo currently is] I used to bring food down to her and he would call. She would ask for bitter melon.” said Kevin.
Upon interviewing May and Kut, I entered the restaurant and heard a chorus of laughter coming from all tables. “Thanks, Diane!” I heard May say as she handed a smiling woman her bag of neatly wrapped take out. It turns out that May and her sister Maggie knew the names of every single regular who stopped by the restaurant, and they made an effort to make every person who came into the restaurant feel at home.
May greeted me with a hug, warmth that immediately made me feel at home and stripped any barriers of a simple business exchange. I could easily see what everyone in the restaurant saw and what all of Fortuna’s customers and community already knew: that what May and Kut had created was not just a restaurant but a place of family.
May and Kut’s children would often work at the restaurant after school, but Maggie regularly helped out at the restaurant after working her full-time job. She said, “It’s family. You take care of your family when they’re in need. It’s the togetherness. We all treat our customers like family. We chat and laugh and cry.”
While many family-owned restaurants hire external workers, Fortuna was run solely by May in the front of the restaurant and Kut cooking in the back. Kut and May would wake up as early as 5:00 AM and work 13 to 14 hour days every week. As they spoke about one another there was a sense of respect, confidence, and value in one another’s work ethic. Kut said, “I worked 42 years in the restaurant industry. I started in Hong Kong and all of my si fus liked me and I earned their respect. That’s why they’d teach me.” May added, “My husband is a very good cook! He cooks everything!”
The internal structure of Fortuna had a simple rule: it was all about consistency. May and Kut enjoyed having a small restaurant because it meant control over the quality of the ingredients they used (they’d even serve vegetables from their garden such as stir-fried green beans) and the level of customer service they could give.
By cooking things himself, Kut knew customers would come back if they liked what he cooked in the first place. May was in charge of the front-of-house, and that meant hard work from butchering pork to chopping up to 100 chickens and preparing 30 pounds of noodles for family association dinners.
Through it all she still managed to remember everyone’s names, even taking care of customers’ when they were under the weather. Loyal customer, Lexi Rodriguez said, “I felt lucky we can feel like we’re part of a family. And I love that about this place, you don’t get that everywhere you go.
Maggie and May they know my parents, aunts, uncles, and sister, they know about my sister’s knee surgery. When I was in school and was sick I would call and she [May] would know by my voice I was sick and she’d make soup for me. And they know all my favorite things to eat!”
Now that Fortuna Cafe has closed shop, May and Kut are looking forward to a life of relaxation in retirement and spending plenty of time with their new grandchild. Kevin said, “I felt bittersweet when my parents told me they were closing. But I know my parents were tired and my mother was ready to retire. My father if he could, he would probably still be working, but I feel like he has earned that privilege to be retired and relax.”
While some things are changing, the architectural integrity of Fortuna’s upstairs will try to be maintained by its new owner, David Leong.
Leong has 10 years of restaurant experience under his belt and is a teaching martial artist in the International District neighborhood. He hopes to continue the welcoming, comfort food atmosphere Fortuna has and has been friends with May and Kut for a long time saying, “Any time you have a family business it involves sacrifice. A sacrifice many people don’t understand. And the first time I stepped into the restaurant I knew the sweat, blood, and tears that went into it. I gave May and Kut a key to the restaurant. I told them go in and out whenever you want as I do my construction in there. And I think it helps them to ease into it, and they said thank you so much. Everything I’ve done has always been hard work, everything is gung fu, and gung fu is art. It’s being an artist in everyday life. That’s why I call them Master and Si Fu and Si Fu’s wife. They are the masters. If you can stick to something 30 to 40 years, you’re a master of everyday life.”