Restaurant owner remembered for generosity, good laugh
The nicest guy.
Ask people around Christiansburg how they remember Charlie Tsu, and that will likely be their first response.
The former owner of Charlie’s Chinese Restaurant on West Main Street died last week at the age of 84 following a heart attack, said Tsu’s niece Zuling Gong, leaving behind a legacy of kindness, laughter and food.
On Wednesday, his remains were laid to rest in Christiansburg’s Sunset Cemetery in the family plot of Donald Hornbarger, one of Tsu’s close friends.
“He was just a fine fella,” Hornbarger said. “You probably can’t find anyone in Christiansburg that knew Charlie that would have a bad thing to say about him.”
Tsu was born in Shanghai, China, in 1929 and worked selling water pumps in Saudi Arabia before moving to Roanoke in the mid-1970s.
Hornbarger said he believed his friend worked in several restaurants in Roanoke before settling in the New River Valley with his wife Mary Hsieh in the 1980s.
“He thought the NRV would be easy to do business,” Gong said.
Hornbarger, who works in refrigeration repair, said he originally met Tsu at Tsu’s Blacksburg restaurant, The Sunshine House, and later helped him construct Charlie’s Chinese Restaurant in Christiansburg, which opened in July 1990.
In September of that year, The Roanoke Times reported the restaurant to be one of 11 Chinese restaurant venues in the New River Valley.
At the time, Tsu said he had visited Beijing in order to gather more authentic recipes for the new restaurant and was hoping to adapt them for “American tastes.”
The plan seemed to have worked, as Christiansburg town councilman Mike Barber recalled Tsu’s restaurant being a weekend hot spot in Christiansburg.
“You could go in there on Friday or Saturday night and the place was packed,” Barber said.
Barber also recalled Tsu’s hospitality during the many times the Christiansburg Kiwanis Club would visit the restaurant after club events.
“He treated us like gold,” Barber said. “In my mind, he was the epitome of customer service.”
Tsu’s hospitality wasn’t limited to those dining in his establishment, and many people also remembered Tsu going out of his way to help those he saw in need.
“I’ve seen him take people out of the street that was hungry, and he’d bring them in and fix them a meal,” Hornbarger said.
Tacy Newell, former owner of Coffee Depot in Christiansburg, said Tsu was very welcoming of her new business when it opened in 2003 and stopped by during the shop’s first days to compliment them on the building’s new coral-colored paint job.
“Charlie came over and congratulated me and told me it was very San Diego,” Newell said.
The man known for bringing a smile to the faces he encountered was also known for a good laugh.
Hornbarger recalled a time he and Tsu smelled a foul order around the exterior of the back of the building, which
Hornbarger later learned resulted from Tsu’s unique egg roll making techniques.
He said Tsu would order large quantities of cabbage, chop it, cook it and then repackage it in large mesh bags. He would then take the bags outside, place them between wooden pallets and drive his car on top of the pallets to drain the water from the cabbage.
The odor resulted from the fermented cabbage juice, which put an abrupt end to the practice, Hornbarger said.
In 2003, Tsu officially retired from the restaurant business at the age of 74 and sold Charlie’s Chinese Restaurant to Gong.
Gong said her uncle encouraged her and her husband, Weiping Gong, to revamp the menu to attract new customers.
“Do some authentic food to keep the people coming,” Gong said her uncle told her.
Following Tsu’s advice, Gong created a new Shanghai-authentic menu, which she believes has attracted many Virginia Tech students and local Chinese Americans.
Gong said she plans for Charlie’s Chinese Restaurant to continue as a staple in downtown Christiansburg for years to come.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1643