Lunchtime at the Ling Garden restaurant in tony Northwest Portland sees diners munching on such Asian cuisine as Mongolian beef and kung pao chicken. The heaping portions are served with rice, soup and an egg roll for $5.95.

Great deal. But wonder how the 16-year-old, family-owned restaurant at 915 NW 21st Ave. keeps its prices so low? Well, hold the soy sauce, because according to one former cook, it's because they paid him as little as $4.92 an hour—well below Oregon's current minimum hourly wage of $7.95.

That puts Ling Garden and its managers, Hsien and Sumei Cheng, at the bottom of the Rogue's rice bowl. Oregon law requires all employees, including restaurant workers making tips, to get minimum wage, before tips.

And according to a federal lawsuit filed Feb. 27 in Portland by lawyers at the Northwest Workers' Justice Project, the Chengs paid Horacio Avila-Casarez, who worked as a Ling Garden cook for seven years before quitting last September, just $1,300 a month for most of his time there. Avila worked between nine and 11 hours a day, six days a week, the lawsuit says. That's between $4.92 and $6 an hour.

NWJP attorney Meg Heaton says Avila now lives in Mexico. She declined to say whether he was here legally. The lawsuit seeks Avila's lost minimum-wage salary and overtime (no firm numbers are given), plus additional penalties to be determined at trial.

Joseph Sim, the Chengs' brother-in-law, says Avila worked 40 hours a week and was paid a legal wage. "If he really had been unfairly treated by the restaurant, why did he wait seven years [to quit]?" Sim asks.

Heaton responds that immigrants like Avila keep working because they're poor and desperate. Meanwhile, when the Rogue stopped in for Szechuan beef, our fortune cookie read like a note from management to the kitchen staff: "It is quality rather than quantity that matters. Do a good job tomorrow."