SPRINGFIELD — When Jesus Santana Soto began working at Lee’s Mongolian Grill five years ago, he’d have never guessed that he’d one day own the place.
“I get emotional just thinking about it,” he said. “When the chance came up to buy this place, we knew it was right for me and my family. This is our dream.”
Under new management, the family-owned restaurant has recently moved from its original Olympic Street location to the corner of Main Street and Pioneer Parkway — grilling up lunch specials while paying homage to the downtown corridor’s rich architectural history.
Family is at the heart of Soto’s momentum and his team in the kitchen. His mother Hilda immigrated to the United States, leaving behind her own restaurant in Mexico to raise her family in Oregon.
“This means everything to me,” Soto said. “My mom had to move to pursue her dream of owning a business here. It’s been hard for her, because she’s an immigrant. It’s hard trying to hope for anything and it’s been hard to help her. Today we get to celebrate.”
Last week, Lee’s Mongolian Grill and the Soto family started a new chapter, hosting a ribbon cutting in collaboration with the Springfield Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s always exciting to see a new business open in downtown Springfield,” said Sean VanGordon, Springfield mayor. “We’re a community that’s open for business.”
The new downtown Springfield grill is serving up fresh veggies, hearty proteins and a heaping serving of heart.
Prior to its grand opening, the building was redesigned by architect Jenna Fribley of Campfire Collaborative, revitalizing its original 1950s mid-century modern structure to accommodate the Soto families’ vision.
“It’s such a visible spot,” Fribley said. “It’s the first thing you see when you’re coming down Main Street from Pioneer Parkway and the second thing you see coming from Eugene. So we just felt like we needed to make sure it made a statement.”
The corner used to boast a classic drive-in called the Timber Topper, which was a staple on Main Street after its opening in 1957.
“We were able to highlight the structure of the beams and get back to some of the distinguishing characteristics of a mid-century building. We found ways to nod to some of the iconic elements of a diner and rework the grill’s branding to put a modern twist on that mid-century character,” she said.
One of Fribley’s most challenging projects was designing a roof-mounted sign — harkening back to a time before the 1970s energy crisis banned electric signs in Springfield.
“It was important for us to have that iconic, corner sign,” she said. “It’s urban, it’s visible, and it’s a statement. In the ‘70s, a lot of those illuminated signs disappeared, so this was the perfect project to welcome them back with.”
Although Lee’s Mongolian Grill is a far cry from a 1950s drive-in, Soto says it’s a full-circle moment that often leaves him speechless.
“Yeah, people laugh seeing us all making Mongolian food in a ‘50s diner,” he said. “And I smile, you know, because that sounds pretty American to me.”