Food for the road that’s good for the body, soul and community
By Rosie Parker
Photography by Angela Aurelio
It’s a Wednesday afternoon at Santa Cruz’s popular Charlie Hong Kong, and there’s a long but rapidly moving line of customers waiting to place orders for the restaurant’s fresh, organic take on Asian street food. Barefoot college kids, families dressed for a day at the beach, leather-clad bikers, giggling teenage girls and everyone in between wait patiently for their turn. This is the community that Carolyn and Rudy Rudolph, the owners of Charlie Hong Kong, feel deeply privileged to serve.
“To me, eating is a community act,” Carolyn says warmly as she stands at the back of the line, too gracious to cut the queue. In fact, as Carolyn waits, she is a host in constant motion— grinning and talkative as she waves at babies, picks up trash, busses dishes, hands out stickers to kids, gives menu suggestions, checks on her employees and keeps an eye on the food coming out of the kitchen to make sure that, yes, that Spicy Dan’s Peanut Delight has enough peanut sauce.
“I care deeply about offering people a place to eat healthy, affordable food,” Carolyn says when she finally sits down to dig in to her own lunch of Green Curry Chicken.
The restaurant’s generously sized signature noodle and rice bowls start at just $6.40 and rise only by a small amount when meat or fish toppings are added. Inexpensive and vegetable- packed salads, Vietnamese sandwiches and other quick dishes originating from across Southeast Asia round out the menu. Everything is organic, ingredients are local when possible and most dishes are offered in vegan and gluten-free form.
Charlie Hong Kong had just recently opened when the Rudolphs bought it in 2000. Rudy, meditative and soft-spoken, and Carolyn, full of contagious energy, formed a yin yang partnership and made the place their own, drawing on a vision that they’d been developing for years.
Rudy, a businessman who spent 30 years in corporate America working for companies like Noah’s Bagels and ComputerLand, always wanted to use his experience to own and operate his own business that, as he says, “would be based on values of kindness and respect.” Carolyn, a mother of two, former teacher and longtime food justice activist, had for years sought to feed people healthy food as a way to support organic farmers and help change the American diet. “Feeding people,” she says, “is my spiritual practice.”
Shortly after Rudy’s 50th birthday, they decided to make the move from Seattle to Santa Cruz to take over Charlie Hong Kong, and they fell seamlessly into their respective roles. Carolyn immediately started looking at the recipes, swapping out peanut oil for the more heart-healthy rice bran oil and going fully organic with all other ingredients. Rudy focused on stability of the business and forging a strong relationship with his staff. He repaired the leaky roof, reorganized the kitchen and worked to educate and encourage his employees by having them understand the financial aspect of running a profitable business. “I’ve learned so much from Rudy,” Carolyn gushes. “He has this ability to show us the story that the numbers are telling.” As Carolyn explains, “One of our main goals is to dignify the profession for our workers.”
This idea of dignifying the industry extends to the business relationships that Carolyn and Rudy have formed. Early on they started working with Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, a farm that could keep up with their astounding demand for 500 pounds of vegetables a day. “We need a supplier that we know and trust,” Carolyn says.
“Lakeside is truly our partner.”
The Rudolphs’ concerns about sourcing have taken them to Vancouver to visit their salmon supplier, Petaluma to see where their chicken is processed, Oakland to view their noodles being made and even to Thailand to meet their coconut milk source.
“You need to acknowledge that there’s a person that’s picking and processing the food that you’re eating,” Carolyn stresses. “You need to understand that what you eat matters.” The other partner in Charlie Hong Kong is the community itself. “I think in terms of community,” Carolyn explains. “It’s about outreach and education.”
A committed environmentalist, Carolyn has, for example, been thrilled to partner with Save Our Shores to educate other city councils on passing plastic bag ban ordinances, and in 2011 the group named Charlie Hong Kong the “Best Business of the Year.”
Other accolades, such as when the Go For Health! collaborative declared Charlie Hong Kong the “Healthiest Restaurant” in Santa Cruz, have given Carolyn the confidence to strengthen her platform and educate her community about how people can make a difference through the simple act of choosing to eat food that is good for the environment and good for people.
“If we’re not looking at food justice, then we’re denying really what’s going on here. I’m very involved with that, and Charlie Hong Kong is a piece of that. Charlie Hong Kong stands for that.”
To Carolyn and Rudy, food is medicine— their restaurant’s slogan is “Love Your Body. Eat Organic.” But for a lot of Charlie Hong Kong’s patrons, food is food. Carolyn knows this, and really doesn’t mind.
“People are constantly coming up to me and saying, ‘I didn’t know you were organic’ or, ‘I didn’t know you were so healthy.’ My response is that that’s my job to take care of you. That’s the ethical thing to do.”
This is the way to change the American diet, she says—making good food accessible. “Charlie Hong Kong is about the basics— a place to nourish and feed yourself, without fuss or muss.”
Rosie Parker is a writer, farmer and beer lover living in the mountains of Santa Cruz. A native New Englander, she misses snow days but is happy she can now grow lettuce in the winter.
CHARLIE HONG KONG
1141 Soquel Avenue