Healthy, subtle flavors featured at Chinese restaurant coming to Laurel in November

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Photo And Story By Jaci Webb Outlook Assistant Editor
Thursday, June 23, 2022
Jamie Chen, a native of China, is bringing his Cantonese style food to Laurel in November with his new business Chen’s Express Chinese Kitchen.

Jamie Chen, a native of China, is bringing his Cantonese style food to Laurel in November with his new business Chen’s Express Chinese Kitchen.

Jamie Chen used to drive by the old Burger King in Laurel on his way to Red Lodge, thinking what a great spot for a restaurant.

In November, that great spot will be his as he opens Chen’s Express Chinese Kitchen, sharing the new building with City Brew Coffee. Billings businessman Steve Zambawa is the landlord.

A native of southern China, Chen fell in love with skiing when he moved to Billings to cook at the Flaming Wok in Rimrock Mall. He had already tried living in San Francisco and Los Angeles when he immigrated to the U.S. in 2010, but those cities “were too big” for Chen. So he moved to Bozeman in 2011, and eventually made his way to Billings.

Inspired by his grandmother’s cooking back in China, Chen began putting his own recipes on the menu of the Shanghai Village in downtown Billings when he purchased it in September, 2015. He sold that business in 2021, and continues to own and operate Chen’s Ramen Noodles and Sushi Bar on 24th Street West in Billings.

He plans to bring some of those items to his Laurel restaurant, offering 20 different entrees in a “build-your-own combo,” which Chen described as “kind of like Panda Express only homemade.”

Chen makes all of the sauces, which have subtle flavors from herbs and other healthy ingredients in the Cantonese style of cuisine. He never uses the food additive MSG, which many people have negative reactions to. Some of his specialties include BBQ chicken and honey shrimp.

Chen said school wasn’t for him so he set his sights on being a cook and owning a restaurant. Now in his early 30s, he has ful filled that goal. Hours are long and the work is physically demanding, but Chen is happy with the progress he has made.

Soon after moving to Billings, he connected with several Billings businessmen, many of whom had offices downtown where Chen worked. One of them, Jeff Wigen with State Farm Insurance, took Chen under his wing and introduced him to skiing.

“Jeff was always driving and I was always sleeping” on the way to Red Lodge. But when Chen did put his head up, he saw the volume of business the fast food restaurants on Laurel’s south side were getting.

“Jeff told me about Burger King closing, and I said, ‘I think we need to make a restaurant right there,” Chen said.

The foundation on the new building was finished in late May and the building should be completed by November. Chen plans to start hiring seven to eight workers for the new Laurel restaurant in October or early November. Despite the challenges of labor shortages and food prices, which Chen has seen double, he is excited about the new enterprise, and ready to introduce his food to Laurel.

“People are really nice here,” Chen said.

The first week of business, Chen plans to donate a portion of his sales to a Laurel non-profit as a way to pay it forward to the Laurel community.

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