The parking lot is full, illuminated by a fading yellow sign adorned with a tiki drink and a palm tree. Unassumingly tucked away in North Riverside, just west of Chicago, Chef Shangri-La is preparing for a lively night—not uncommon for the suburban mainstay. The entire restaurant is bustling, packed with families that fill the festively decorated, tiki-inspired dining room. Specialty cocktails and massive portions of Cantonese classics line the tables as customers fill the restaurant with astonishing energy. And to keep the place running smoothly, the owners, Dr. Lisa and Irv Abrams, are fixed to the host stand, inviting customers into their 47-year-old restaurant.
Even though boozy tiki drinks like the Mai Tai or Dr. Fongs and the expansive Cantonese menu alone could justify the crowd, the main attraction begins shortly after 7 PM. Elvis has entered the building. The restaurant is suddenly quiet and the King himself serenades the tipsy dining room. The live entertainment occurs within the crowd, facilitating an intimate, far more engaging experience than an onstage performer. Suddenly, it’s clear why Chef Shangri-La upholds its distinctive, timeless legacy and why customers keep coming back.
Chef Shangri-La opened in 1976 when Lisa’s parents, Paul and Susie Fong, decided to leave their original Chinatown eatery. The Fong family purchased this modest corner building in North Riverside, despite a significantly smaller kitchen and dining room. Still, Paul hoped the new building would give him the opportunity to create his perfect restaurant. Somehow in this limited kitchen, Lisa remembers her father cooking some of her favorite meals—occasionally a 14-course spread.
“Prior to the opening, they set out to make this the ‘chef Shangri-la,’ interpreted by my father as the ‘chef’s utopia’ of what heaven was like for a chef, and designed it with Hawaiian decor, because who doesn’t like Hawaii?” says Lisa. “My mother really liked the idea because her grandmother was originally Hawaiian.”
Paul’s recipes continue to live on at Chef Shangri-La, filling a massive menu that features beloved items such as Shrimp La Fong and Tahitian Mango Passion Pork. The Fong family has also crafted an impressively creative boozy drink list with the specialty Dr. Fongs at the top, humorously named after Lisa when she had yet to complete her doctorate. When Paul passed away in 2012, Susie and her children ran the restaurant alone until she fell ill in 2019, leading her to approach Lisa’s husband Irv to take over the restaurant.
“The absolute reason we came to take over the Chef is my mother,” says Lisa. “She had wanted to have the restaurant continue, and her wish, as it had been for many years, was she wanted to leave behind a whole extended family to be able to return to the Chef to have holidays and birthdays and anniversaries together and to keep the Fong family traditions alive and well.”
The Fongs carved out a family legacy in North Riverside, but Chef Shangri-La’s impact is embedded in the community due to its generational footprint. Guests are made to feel special. Simply by visiting, it’s apparent that you’ve entered a well-established, emotionally rich cornerstone. Beyond the drinks, the food, the retro atmosphere, and the performance, there is a real history that lives on—and that’s the true accomplishment for any restaurant that stays open for more than a decade, let alone nearly five.
“My favorite part of running the restaurant is hearing stories about how great a chef Paul Fong was and how families continue to dine with us over the last 46 years,” says Irv. “Lisa and I can carry out Mom’s wishes to deliver a great product and allow our customers to feel like they are on a tropical vacation.”
Chef Shangri-La 7930 W. 26th St., North Riverside708-442-7080chefshangri-la.com
Chef Shangri-La’s live performances originated as fan dances, hula routines, and other Hawaiian-inspired shows, but in 2013, Elvis impersonators became a regular attraction. The longest-standing Elvis performer is Michael St. Angel, who performs on the fourth Friday of every month. St. Angel started performing when Chef Shangri-La first introduced Elvis to the lineup and feels a special and familiar connection to his performances there. He dances and sings between the tables, greeting newcomers, birthday celebrators, and die-hard regular customers—which ties the knot on a memorable experience.
“I am proud to say that the first year they began offering live entertainment, I was one of the first, if not the first, solo performer who entertained there,” says St. Angel. “To date, the Fong family and I have been together since early 2013, so we’re celebrating our ten-year anniversary together.
“Overall,” he continues, “the crowd at Chef Shangri-La is energetic, and people are there to have a good time. It’s a great vibe there—Hawaiian/tiki themes, powerful tropical drinks, good food, etc. Toss in Elvis and you have the recipe for a memorable night, for sure. Since I’ve been performing there for so long, I have met many friends and fans from this one spot who not only have followed me elsewhere but also make a point of returning to Chef Shangri-La when I am there, which makes my performances all the more special and familiar.”
By 2019, Chef Shangri-La acquired a lineup of several other performers, including Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, and Tina Turner impersonators, among others. For several years before the pandemic, the family hosted Fong Fest—an annual music festival held in the restaurant’s parking lot. This year, Fong Fest will finally return in September, complete with more than 50 tropical drinks and Chinese appetizers. The Abrams family intends to carry on Paul and Susie Fong’s legacy, and so far, Chef Shangri-La remains the comforting “utopia” it set out to be. Maybe it’s the booze, but when you visit Chef Shangri-La, you want to stay a while. And you’ll likely return with friends, no matter how long the drive is out to the suburbs.
“My mother is always with us in spirit and in the restaurant, and she wants us to continue to the next generation,” Lisa said. “Many others want to demolish this old building and turn it into condominiums or apartments, like the current community is also hoping, I think, but we’re hanging in there strong as ever.”
During the pandemic, Irv and Lisa managed to keep Chef Shangri-La alive thanks to outdoor dining and entertainment. Plus, Irv and Lisa began bottling Dr. Fongs and the other signature drinks by quarts and gallons for customers to enjoy at home.
Lisa continued, “I want the customers to come with their families, young and old, friends, and colleagues to enjoy good Cantonese food like they are in Hawaii, get more happy with our fancy tropical drinks, and have a great time. I also want them to leave here and say, ‘When can we come back again?’”