Straight Talk From A Straight TalkerPosted on August 18, 2009 – 8:09 PM | by OldManFoster
Mason Wong flashes a grin from across the table in the lounge at Mason’s, his popular upscale Midtown eatery, clearly loving the success he’s so notably earned. His hair, worn long, jets up from his head in places like uncoiled springs. Clad in tee shirt, jeans and athletic shoes, he is relaxed and at ease but his eyes fix you intently, never leaving your face. Beneath the calm exterior, the man is a bundle of energy, missing nothing, on top of his game.
Next door at Ma Jong’s- the sister restaurant to Mason’s- a long line of regulars waits at the door. The courtyard, which serves both establishments teems with outdoor fanciers seated at tables and overstuffed furniture. Graceful, leafy sycamores tower overhead and bamboo plants in huge urns bring an added touch of greenery and variety to the space. A fire pit offers a special touch of evening intrigue. Gracing the front of the property with tables and chairs scattered over the sidewalk is a short order takeout place, The Park To Go. The Park Ultra Lounge, one of the city’s liveliest late-night clubs, takes up the rear. A bit of humor is added with the peek-a-boo glass in the restroom which allows couples to smile bemusedly at one another as they scrub their hands while bringing looks of startled surprise from first-time customers. Known as The Park Downtown, this enclave of Wong’s, which occupies the corner of 16th and L across from Capitol Park, offers the complete package.
A block away, Wong’s latest creation, MIX, has quickly become one of the toasts
of the town, offering small plates in an indoor-outdoor setting atop a building that once housed a Firestone garage. Reclaimed barn wood adorns the ceiling, EPA redwood provides decking for the patio and white oak for the interior walls. Finished cement bar tops and a patio floor of hardwood add to the place’s eclectic feel and the organic atmosphere that has proved so popular.
“I felt the Midtown area needed a cool, comfortable, atmospheric lounge, a cozy, private space where people could take advantage of an indoor-outdoor ambiance and relax… where they could eat good food without being challenged by a big bill. MIX provides that atmosphere and the small plate concept makes sense,” Wong explains. “The space is always critical in planning a restaurant and I analyzed this space for a long time before moving on it. It’s a great location but second floor space can be tricky. This was a storage place for tires and the restaurant was difficult to visualize. But I think we got it right. People are pleased with the results.”
Wong comes honestly by this ability to visualize. When he was very young, his father, Sun G. Wong, opened the Ah Chop Chop at Madison and Manzanita and some time later, Luau Garden on Arden Way with a nightclub next door. Luau and the club, now known as Barcode, are still going strong, 32 years later.
The elder Wong also managed to find time to serve two terms on the Sacramento City Council and is still involved in the business as are his two other sons, Curtis and Alan. “I was sixteen when my dad opened the restaurant and more interested in baseball and golf but my interest grew over time,” says Wong.
“I went off to Berkeley, studied accounting and finance, then joined a major accounting firm… After three years of that, I got involved in the family business, running the nightclub originally, then becoming interested in the food end. I get my creative side from my father. It’s either in your blood or isn’t, I think.”
Wong began studying the Midtown and Downtown areas for new opportunities and saw great potential in the property at 16th and L. “I felt it was a terrific location. Beer’s Books and other small businesses were there but it was a sleepy corner in a desirable part of town with nothing much happening. We talked initially about a small space, a three thousand square foot Asian restaurant but over time, the larger concept with fine dining and the club evolved and it’s been a great experience, a resounding success.”
Wong muses that like most things in life, people are the key. “We look for good people and when we get them, we do our best to keep them happy and hang on to them. Our sous-chef at Mason’s, John Gurnee, became the chef at MIX. Donnie Tengco started with us in an entry-level job nine years ago and now he’s a key manager at Ma Jong’s and the club. John Daniel started as a spotter at Barcode and he’s also an important guy at Ma Jong’s and in security at the club. There are many others.”
Asked about the future, Wong is his usual candid and straightforward self. “Another project would be the limit, I think. Projects require maintenance. You work long days and long weeks. There’s only so much of that to go around. But I might want to consult on other projects. I love creating a new space, the concept and evolution. I might want to do that in another city, perhaps even another country.”
Wong’s vision has helped transform the 16th Street corridor into an entertainment axis as competitors have emulated his move, surrounding him on all sides and extending up the avenue, turning the area into one of the city’s most exciting and popular pleasure venues.
“We have some really fine restaurants here run by bright, capable people. I especially admire the concepts of the Haines Brothers, Derek Fong at Mikuni’s, and Tony Babcock at Jack’s Urban Eats.”
If he is enthusiastic about those recent developments, he is less so about the city’s plans for K Street.
“The recent investment in K Street by the City Council wasn’t warranted. For someone to step in, be rewarded by the City with several million dollars, and personally spend twenty percent of what many of us have spent out of pocket is not right and not good business. Many of us have created important elements of this center city on our own, and city money needs to be spent carefully. K Street Mall needs an upgrade, an anchor store, and residential development around it.
“Most of all, we need maturity and vision from our City Council, a searching evaluation of the city’s needs, and a solid development plan. There’s an absence of that in Sacramento. The City Council needs to step up and provide it.
“Sacramento has a bright future but I don’t think it’s certain that it will grow into a major city. It may always be a bedroom community with a strong family orientation. We definitely need a bigger population base Downtown, residential and mixed use development, if it’s going to grow in stature. If we get them, everything else will follow.”