Seven years ago, during the Winnipeg Jets 2.0’s inaugural season, a New York City-based writer was in town covering a National Hockey League tilt between the Jets and his hometown New York Rangers.
On the day of the game, he was walking back to his hotel after the two teams’ morning skate when he spied a noon-hour lineup snaking outside Mitzi’s Chicken Finger Restaurant, a downtown mainstay that celebrated its 40th year in business in June.
Wondering what the fuss was about, he joined the queue, landing a table in the homey, 100-seat locale, recognizable for its orangey-pink stucco exterior, some 25 minutes later. After polishing off his lunch, he approached Mitzi’s owner Shirley Eng and asked if he could interview her for a culinary story, his angle being if you thought chicken fingers were for kids and kids alone, you haven’t been to Mitzi’s. Of course she’d be happy to chat with him, she said, but it would have to wait as she was up to her eyeballs in orders.
He called her from home a few days later. A couple months after that, his story appeared in Saveur magazine, along with a recipe for the "light and crisp" breading mixture Eng uses to coat her restaurant’s namesake entree. One problem: her recipe is an "ancient Chinese secret," Eng says with a laugh, and at no time during their conversation did she divulge even one herb or spice to him.
"His article was interesting and all but I told him I didn’t want to give anybody the wrong impression because the recipe they printed wasn’t ours. It was good, I tried it, but it was — what do they call it now — fake news."
‘All the time, we also get calls from everywhere you can imagine, people who want us to ship fingers and (honey dill) sauce to Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, you name it, except we’re just not set up that way’ — Shirley Eng
Eng, listing her age as "another ancient Chinese secret," grew up in Hong Kong. She moved to Winnipeg, where her married sister was already living, 45 years ago. Despite arriving in the middle of a January cold snap, she instantly fell in love with her new home.
"Yes there was lots of snow and sure it was freezing but you know what? It was my decision to come here — nobody forced me to leave Hong Kong — and my way of thinking has always been you accept the good with the bad and you don’t complain."
Eng, whose first job in Winnipeg was at the Royal Bank of Canada, says it was somewhat comical she and her late husband Peter, a professional tailor she met in Winnipeg, mutually agreed to buy an existing restaurant at 250 St. Mary Ave. in 1978, given the fact neither one of them was particularly adept when it came to cooking.
"Me, I could barely boil a pot of water, but it seemed like a good opportunity so we went for it," she says, adding she’d be a wealthy woman today if she had a dime for every time a customer has called her Mitzi through the years. (Roughly translated, mitzi means tasty food in Chinese, the mother of three explains.)
For the first decade of its existence, Mitzi’s served exclusively westernized Chinese cuisine such as sweet and sour shrimp, teriyaki chicken, spring rolls and fried rice. Business was good, not great, Eng says, so when they closed for seven months in 1988 while Eng stayed home with the couple’s second child (before moving to a home in Fort Garry, they lived in a furnished apartment directly above their business), they spent part of their downtime revamping their menu.
The idea to introduce chicken fingers to the mix was her husband’s, Eng says. Ever since the deep-fried, breaded cutlets came into vogue in the late 1970s — Spanky’s, a family-owned operation in Savannah, Ga., is widely credited for inventing the dish in 1976 — Peter would order them almost every time they went out to eat. Afterwards, he’d comment how he could come up with something more scrumptious if he put his mind to it, his wife says.
OK, maybe the world’s poultry population would disagree, but the Engs’ decision to make chicken fingers their restaurant’s bread and butter turned out to be a stroke of genius; before long they were going through 600 to 700 pounds of lean chicken breasts a week.
Every last chicken finger served at Mitzi’s is prepared fresh daily. Eng doesn’t own a freezer, never has. As soon as the last of her lunch crowd has gone back to work, she locks her front door and heads into the kitchen where, for the next two hours, she slices, marinates and breads what she hopes will be enough chicken fingers to get her through the dinner rush (Mitzi’s is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday).
"Because we only make as much as we think we’re going to sell, there have definitely been days and nights when we’ve come close to running out of chicken altogether," she says, noting at age — "Nice try, I’m still not going to tell you" — she continues to work 70 hours per week, on average.
If you’re like us and can never remember the precise amount of liquid you’re permitted to take with you on a domestic flight, you can always drop by Mitzi’s and ask Eng.
Constantly bombarded with requests from out-of-towners, the majority of them ex-Winnipeggers, who are keen to return home with containers of her home-made honey dill sauce, also her husband’s recipe, she is keenly aware a person can’t transport more than 3.4 ounces, or 100 millilitres, in their carry-on luggage.
"All the time, we also get calls from everywhere you can imagine, people who want us to ship fingers and (honey dill) sauce to Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, you name it, except we’re just not set up that way," she says. When asked if she’s ever considered franchising, Eng says if she had "the million dollars" it would take to get more restaurants up and running, she’d have retired "a long time ago."
Remarking "do you want to hear a good one?" Eng tells a story about a fellow who recently dropped by with friends to celebrate his 29th birthday. While settling his tab, he reminded Eng how, when he turned 12, she gave him a dozen free lollipops from a stash she keeps behind the cash register. Well-known for serving meals with a side of sass, she instantly shot back, "So what are you saying? Today you want 29?"
By the way, if you want to be a Canadian rock and roll icon, you have to eat like a Canadian rock and roll icon. For three decades, one of Eng’s most loyal customers has been Randy Bachman, ex- of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. And while the Juno Award-winning singer/songwriter’s career has taken several twists and turns, his Mitzi’s order hasn’t deviated a whit.
"Always the No. 4 combo, which is eight chicken fingers, 10 pan-fried shrimp, stir-fried veggies and rice," Eng says, pointing to a photo of the Winnipeg-born guitar god hanging on the wall near her front entrance. The last time Bachman was in Winnipeg was for the grand opening of Save-On-Foods in November 2016 when he signed autographs at each of the B.C.-based retailer’s three new locations.
"In between store visits he came here for lunch, but because he was in a rush, I guess, he sent his driver in to pick up his order. I was like, ‘Where’s Randy? Is he in the car? You tell him to get his butt in here himself if he wants something to eat.’ "
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.