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May Jen, Buffalo's oldest Chinese restaurant, is coming back

May Jen, the area’s longest-serving Chinese restaurant, will reopen after the completion of post-fire renovations.

The restaurant, at 47 Kenmore Ave., has been closed since a January blaze.

“We are in the process of redesigning and getting all the permits to get us back going again,” said owner Susan Leong. “But it’s a very slow process, so we don’t expect to reopen until the spring.”

Renovations will include a patio dining area in front of the restaurant, across Main Street from the University at Buffalo’s South Campus. Shrubbery or other greenery will be added to the formerly concrete pad, said Leong. "We need to add more permeable surface, and more greenery, instead of some of the concrete that's there."

Leong may be the only restaurateur in town whose business is a hobby alongside their main career as a cancer researcher.

For more than 50 years, the physiology Ph.D. has worked at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she has gone to part-time emeritus status, but remains director of graduate studies for the Cancer Pathology and Prevention Graduate Program.

“It’s something on the side,” she said. “It's a hobby.”

Her husband Jim was an engineer at Moog. The couple both immigrated to the United States as children, before meeting at Rutgers University.

His family owned the former The Taiwan restaurant, which was located where Loughran’s is now on Main Street in Snyder.  “We put ourselves through school working in Chinese restaurants,” she said.

She’s been in business at the Kenmore location for 36 years. “When we started in Buffalo 36 years ago, there were a handful of Chinese restaurants in Buffalo, that I could count on the fingers of one hand.” She also had a location on Elmwood Avenue that closed in 2001 after a fire.

"Gradually all the takeout places opened, so you could find takeout on every street corner almost," she said. "Then the buffets came in, so many buffets."

On Jan. 29, a two-alarm fire broke out in the restaurant, extending through the exhaust ducts to the roof and causing an estimated $325,000 in damage.

As Leong waits for plans and permissions to reopen May Jen, she is updating the menu, keeping favorites like garlic ginger chicken, but introducing some new dishes as well.

“The customers’ favorites will definitely be available,” she said. "My customers have been calling and calling, saying 'Are you opening? When are you reopening'? And we say yes, we are."

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