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A photo illustration with the Mary Chung restaurant sign layered over a takeout bowl of dumplings, with scrawled-out recipe cards on either side.
A passionate group of fans work to preserve the legacy of a beloved Central Square restaurant.
Lille Allen/Eater Boston

Months After Its Closure, Mary Chung’s Story Is Still Being Told

From bidding on dishes to reverse-engineering recipes, the Cambridge mainstay’s fandom continues to thrive

The Fans of Mary Chung’s Facebook group started in 2008 over one man’s love of suan la chao shou — mouth-tingling Sichuan wontons swimming in chile oil, a standby dish at the eponymous restaurant. A five-minute stroll from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, Mary Chung — fondly known as Mary Chung’s or Mary’s among fans — had been MIT’s de facto dining room for the past 40 years. For much of its 15-year existence, the Facebook group perched on the brink of deletion, revived only when an automated “Is this group still active?” pop-up prompted its admin to post a picture of her takeout. But on the morning of December 12, 2022, a post appeared on the group wall that catapulted this sleepy fan club into an international hub of activity: Mary Chung’s was shutting down for good at the end of the year.

In the following weeks, word of the restaurant’s impending closure traveled to Miami, San Francisco, Taipei, and Tokyo. The post that broke the news of the closure saw more than 20,000 hits, and the group nearly doubled its size overnight, to more than 1,100 members. Diners joined Fans of Mary Chung’s to mourn and inform, offering favorite “Mary’s stories” and reporting live on how to navigate the hours-long lines during the restaurant’s last weeks.

Now, months after Chung served her last bowl of suan la chao shou, this online fan group continues to expand in membership and activity. What began with a few flip-phone photos has evolved into an endless scroll of HD recreations of Chung’s dishes, reviews of invariably disappointing Chinese restaurants across the country that can’t compare to Mary’s, and ambitious initiatives like acquiring the restaurant’s sign for the MIT Museum.

Two days after the “finale” post, group member Barry Jaspan had organized an effort to produce a Mary Chung’s cookbook. By the restaurant’s last day of business on December 31, 76 group members had signed on to back the project, pledging more than $5,000 along with their time, resources, and skills. But from their very first Zoom meeting, the cookbook contingent was walking back their strategy. They quickly realized that the creation of a cookbook required not just Chung’s recipes but also her involvement, from crafting the narrative to testing (and retesting) recipes, design, and finding a publisher — a significant undertaking on the heels of Chung’s retirement from a 40-year career. The ambitious project fully unraveled when Chung, who kept many of her recipes unwritten in her memory, chose not to respond to their written request.

With their cookbook aspirations dashed, the fans shifted their focus — acquiring the sign to install in the MIT museum. They nominated Jaspan to lead the charge. Jaspan first contacted Chung’s son Tom, who’d worked front of house at the restaurant. Tom Chung revealed that the iconic jade green sign that had guided diners to the restaurant for decades did not in fact belong to Mary Chung, but to the landlord — MIT. Jaspan’s subsequent negotiations with the interceding real estate management company proved fruitless; the company wanted to resolve the future of the space before parting with the sign. Faced again with the task of disrupting Chung’s retirement to propose what was quickly becoming another complicated project, Jaspan decided to stand down.

The cookbook and storefront sign are just two campaigns in a multifront grab for anything Mary’s. Fans of Mary Chung’s members have also designed and sold Mary Chung’s apparel (with the restaurant’s blessing), organized group biddings for Mary Chung’s liquidation auction of dinner and cookware, unearthed decades-old Food Network and news coverage, and created a ChatGPT ode to Mary’s.

Mary and Tom Chung declined to participate in an interview for this story after the restaurant shut down in January. Attempts to reach her since have been unsuccessful.

Looking back, Jaspan admits that the scramble to save memorabilia, among other projects, was a “panicked attempt” to hold onto his own past.

When Jaspan was first taken to Mary Chung’s in the spring of 1989, the restaurant had been in business for eight years and was already a social nucleus of MIT. Resident advisers, upperclassmen, and professors introduced suan la chao shou to unsuspecting freshmen, and burning one’s mouth on chile oil was an unofficial rite of passage. Like Proust’s madeleine, a bite of Chung’s suan la chao shou can transport Jaspan back to his freshman year at MIT, when he was 19, discovering what it meant to truly belong, and “just really, really happy.”

For Jaspan and many members of the Facebook group, Chung’s food anchored their most cherished memories. Lori Tsuruda, who has been dining at Mary Chung’s since the fall of ’85 as a freshman at MIT, likewise attributes her 37 years of patronage to the formative role it played in her coming of age.

“Originally my family is from the same province in China as most of the people in Boston Chinatown, so Toishanese,” she said, from Toishan, a city in Southeast China. Sugar, soy sauce, and rice wine are key flavors and dishes are often steamed or fried — think dim sum. “Going to Mary Chung’s, where there were these spicy things that my family had never had, it was eye-opening,” Tsuruda says. “You’re finally out on your own, there were all these new flavors and you’re experimenting with new things. That was amazing.”

Half a year has passed since Mary Chung’s doors permanently closed, leaving the Facebook group fans pondering their identity. Who are they now, without the restaurant that brought them together? The answer was already written on their wall.

Page after page, group members chronicle their fondest memories of Mary Chung’s, some spanning thousands of words. Affectionately referred to as “Mary’s stories,” these are tales of first dates vetted through Mary’s modest decor, multigenerational Christmas traditions forged over takeout, anecdotes of finding comfort in familiar flavors, and above all, stories of Chung herself, who remembered each patron by name. Each story, each memory, draws a flurry of views, comments, and likes — a testament to their powerful resonance with the group, grounding its members in a shared history.

The Fans of Mary Chung’s Facebook group has settled into its final form as a digital archive of Mary’s stories. The restaurant’s end marked a stark conclusion to an era, yet through this shared endeavor of storytelling, fans have found a way to ensure that the spirit of this Cambridge institution lives on.

Effie Kong is a genre-promiscuous writer and nomadic educator currently residing in Boston.

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