history

Wingtai Oriental Grocery, once an A&W Drive-In restaurant at 3801 Ryan St., will soon be torn down and made into a parking lot with the store moving into a larger building right behind the current building. (Lisa Addison/American Press)

When the small building with faded green trim at 3801 Ryan St. is torn down soon, a piece of Lake Charles history will be gone as well because the building — home to Wingtai Oriental Grocery — was once a hopping A&W Drive-In restaurant.

An ad in the American Press on June 6, 1966, touted the restaurant that was known for its root beer: “The new A&W Drive-In in Lake Charles is the home of the famous A&W Chubby Chicken dinners. You’ll also find other tasty treats including the famous A&W root beer.”

Those frosty mugs of root beer are indeed what brought many people to the bustling eatery, part of a national chain, that had orange as its main color motif and was known for its car hops, hamburgers, French fries and root beer. 

Sara McDowell, who was a student at Barbe High School in the 1970s, said, “I remember during band rehearsals in the summer it was so hot but we weren’t allowed to drink from the water fountains or else we would make ourselves sick. We had multitudes of ice chests on the sidelines with crushed ice that we were allowed to have during our short breaks in rehearsal.”

During her senior year, which came with longer lunch breaks, “I remember a bunch of us heading to A&W,” McDowell said. “I don’t recall any of us ordering food, but I do remember literally dozens of large empty root beer mugs on the table afterwards. I’m fairly certain I, myself, drank five or six. Then we had to return to the marching field. Then we were miserable. But it sure was good at the time.”

LaDonna McKnight has fond memories of times spent at A&W Drive-In with her family. 

“I remember you could get four hot dogs for $1 on Tuesdays,” McKnight said. “My mom would stop and get enough for four kids and her and dad. We though it was so cool. I also have lots of memories of going for root beer floats with my grandmother.”

After the A&W Drive-In closed, the building was later turned into a restaurant for a brief time before becoming home to Wingtai Oriental Grocery.

Mai Duong, owner of Wingtai Oriental Grocery along with husband Roger, has operated the store for 18 years and although she doesn’t serve up root beer floats, “I have anything and everything you will ever need. I like to help people find all of the items they need to make dishes that they are creating. The most popular items I have here are teas, sauces and spices.”

The little store is crammed full of spices, exotic fruit, sauces, teas, food, traditional Asian silk dresses, chopsticks, seaweed and housewares.

Born in Cambodia, Duong has two children and has lived in the Unites States since 1986. 

She said she “loves” all of her customers and has known many of them for so long that they have become like family.

“Don’t worry; Wingtai is not leaving but we are just moving to a new and much larger building right behind this building,” she said. “This old building will be torn down and a parking lot will be right here. It’s sad but happy, too. I like this building but it’s too small. It is way too small and we have nowhere else to put anything. The new building is very large and we will have room to put even more things.”

Duong said she can cook almost anything and enjoys cooking for her family every day. “I love to do stir fry and all kinds of soups. I can make sushi better than you will find in most restaurants. If my customers want to know how to do it, I will tell them, too. I love helping people.”

Although the date hasn’t been set for demolition of the Wingtai building, Duong said it will happen fairly soon and in addition to the grocery being located in the newer building, there are also plans in the works for a possible restaurant in the new facility as well.

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