Frank Fat: From Obscurity to Celebrity
Dec 26, 2019 04:18PM
Gam Saan, or “Gold Mountain,” took many forms. For Frank Fat, infamous restaurateur of Sacramento, his ascent up Gold Mountain started with a keno game in the basement of the Hong King Lum Restaurant. Eighty years later, Frank Fat’s, at 806 L Street, has become a Sacramento icon and is still run by members of the Fat family.
Frank Fat was born Dong Sai-Fat in 1904. He traveled as a “paper son” from his village outside Canton, China, to the U.S. in 1919, landing at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. At that time, the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. To sidestep this inconvenience, Frank’s family paid the equivalent of $1,000 to purchase false immigration documents that positioned him as the son of Wong Bing Yuen, another immigrant.
Frank took up residence with an uncle, Dong Haw, at the Hong Kim Lum Restaurant in Downtown Sacramento. To pay down his immigration debt, Fat worked as a dishwasher at the Sutter Club, picked fruit, and worked in a laundry. When his debt was cleared eight years later, he and several friends traveled back to China to meet and marry their brides.
Frank Fat married Yee Lai Ching—later known as Mary—who came from a merchant family. As a couple, they returned to the U.S. with their first-born son. While waiting tables at the Hong King Lum Restaurant, Frank got his big break.
Chinese keno was offered at the restaurant, and a local patron entrusted Frank with the task of purchasing tickets for him. The numbers were called after the customer left, and it was discovered that one of his 50-cent tickets had won $900. Frank held onto the ticket and returned it when the customer came in for dinner. In appreciation for Frank’s honesty, the customer provided a business loan for Frank Fat to open his own restaurant.
In 1939, Frank Fat purchased a former restaurant and bar at 806 L Street and opened Frank’s 806. The establishment would go on to become known as Frank Fat’s. This Sacramento landmark—because of its proximity to the capitol and Frank’s welcoming personality and sense of discretion—catered to legislators, lobbyists, lawyers, politicos, and just about every governor to sit in the capitol since opening. For decades, Frank Fat’s was referred to as the “Third House,” with the Senate and Assembly being the first and second. Legend says that legislative deals were as likely to be made at the restaurant as in the capitol building itself.
In 1987, lobbyists, insurers, doctors, and representatives of the tobacco industry met at the restaurant to negotiate details of a product-liability peace pact with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Lockyer. With a flair for the dramatic, Lockyer scribbled the pact on a linen napkin and the lobbyists signed it. A copy of the napkin still hangs at Fat’s today.
In 1984, the restaurant closed for nine months for renovation. The grand reopening, and Frank’s 80th birthday celebration, saw the entire block closed to traffic and 4,000 people in attendance.
The Fat family still owns and operates the restaurant, as well as Fat’s Asia Bistro in Roseville (2000) and Folsom (2004) and Fat’s Catering. Fat City Bar & Café in Old Sacramento, which opened in 1976, closed last November.
In 2013, Frank Fat’s received the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award, which honors locally owned and operated restaurants that are the fabric of their community.
by Jerrie Beard