House of Nanking opened when I was 7 years old. When I wasn’t in school, I was at the restaurant. Just to give you some perspective on how much time I spent in that restaurant, I don’t actually remember where I was living at the time when I was 7. That’s how little of time I spent at home during that first year House of Nanking opened. The things I do remember however, are all those late nights at the restaurant I spent, watching my parents do everything and anything you could possibly imagine, from building furniture, making sauces, wrapping dumplings, climbing on ladders to clean vents or fix broken fans. I remember my mom tasking me to help dry-off chopsticks, forks and plates after she washed them. I remember bouncing a red rubber ball in the back corner on nights when the restaurant was slow, which was almost every night when we first opened. I would color on the counter, play with plastic dinosaurs until I couldn’t stay awake, at which point, I would build a makeshift bed by pushing 3 chairs together and sleep to the sound of our wok firing up, the clinking and clanking of cutlery and the smells of delicious food. If they had a restaurant mode on our kid's sound machine for when they go to bed, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
Out of all the memories I have during the first year of opening House of Nanking, the one that has burned deeply into my brain were those days, I saw how badly my parents wanted the place to become a success. In fact, the first customer who walked in, who wasn’t family or friends of family, made such an impression on me that I still recall the exact encounter. An elderly man, in tan khakis, a white shirt, grey wool vest and tan jacket with a cane walked in and sat down at a table. My father eagerly went up to him to help him order and then cook for him. He watched the customer eat his food and spoke with him to gauge his reaction. The man didn’t seem impressed, he didn’t crack a smile or nod his head in any sort of satisfaction upon his first bite. When my dad asked him how the meal was, he said it was “ok.” Although it didn’t take long for the man to eat his lunch and leave, it felt like the longest meal for the Fang family. I could sense my dad’s disappointment and frustration. My mom who is typically the positive one in the family, also felt discouraged. At this point, the only customers they had were family friends.
The menu at the time was authentic Shanghainese cuisine. This is what my dad grew up with and knew how to cook. He was making all the traditional dishes he missed back home, red sauce braised pork belly with octopus, pickled mustard green with shredded pork stir-fried with rice cakes, pork stuffed tofu puff with glass noodles, vegetarian mock goose with shitake mushrooms. This was the late 80’s, a time when people were eating quintessential Chinese American dishes such as moo go gai pan, egg foo young, and General Tsao’s chicken. Needless to say, the Americans who came in to try our restaurant, found our Shanghainese food to be too foreign. So if the Westerners were not ready for this type of cuisine back then, surely the local Chinese customers would appreciate authentic Shanghainese food right? Wrong. Most of the immigrants who moved to the U.S at the time were from Southern China (Canton or Guangdong). Shanghainese cuisine is known for their heavy handedness on soy sauce, sugar and salt. Their dim sum items are all wheat based and filled with mostly pork. Cantonese cuisine focuses on the usage of natural flavors and relies less on soy sauce, sugar and salt. Focusing on fresh seafood, vegetable and protein, their sauces tend to be much lighter and brings out the natural umami and flavors of the ingredients they use. This meant my dad’s menu was not a good fit for their palate as well. Without the local Chinese and local Westerners, House of Nanking didn’t stand a chance to survive.
Then came the pivot which saved us. Mr Fang started reworking the menu. He decided traditional Shanghainese wasn’t going to cut it. He needed to make his food more approachable while still being unique. This was a time when places like Henry Hunan’s and The Mandarin were drawing long lines with food that was different from the typical Chinese American fare. He started experimenting with local fresh produce and ingredients that Americans love and fused those ingredients with traditional Chinese dishes and flavors. Broccoli, tomatoes, cilantro, leeks, yams, snap peas, salmon, halibut, were just a few ingredients he fell in love with after immigrating to the U.S. I remember going to the local supermarket in the Inner Sunset on 26th avenue, picking up leeks and cilantro for a fresh garlic green sauce he would blend up with toasted sesame oil, almost like a chimichurri and serve that over a perfectly pan seared piece of halibut. I’ll never forget the day he introduced his sizzling salmon in black bean sauce. I was often his first taste tester because I loved trying everything my dad would make. The dish was a showstopper; the smoke, the smell, and the sound, customers would ooo and ahhh as the skillet gets placed in front of them. He also took classic popular appetizers and put his fun spin on it. Onion cakes and fried postickers were laden with a spicy garlicy peanut sauce (which gained a cult following). He filled his pan-fried veggie buns with freshly diced zucchinis and peas that gave the buns a juicy fresh pop rather than the typical soft fillings dim sum places made using mushrooms, vermicelli noodles, and cabbage.
It felt like he opened a door into a new cuisine that he was born to create. It felt like the ideas would just come every week as we got busier and busier. This pivot is what changed everything for us. And because I experienced it first hand, it’s allowed me to be the chef that I am today. I don’t feel bound to a particular cuisine when I’m in the kitchen creating a menu item. The base of Fang’s cuisine is Chinese but the influence comes from all over. When I first opened Fang, I based 50% of the lunch menu on this Grilled Bao Burger concept. I worked on getting custom baos made the size of burger buns, filled them crispy fish filet, stir fried ground pork, pork belly, fried chicken, topped with pickled veggies and a secret sauce. We would sear the buns in a panini press and make it slightly crisp on the outside. The idea was a flop. It had way too much going on with it which made execution hard and the bold flavors and textures were indiscernible as they competed with each other. I swallowed the rejection pill and decided to scrap the whole idea and rework the lunch menu with my dad. I eventually reworked the bun concept and turned it into a two-three bite appetizer dish and after a few iterations, it’s become one of our number one sellers. Our Fang’s Buns have now gained its’ own cult following, much like our fried potstickers with peanut sauce at Nanking has. I have my dad to thank for this lesson. As businesses owners, it’s important to learn how to make pivots. Not every idea you jump into will work, in fact many ideas that end up succeeding have manifested through more iterations than you think.
The final iteration of my famous creation, Fang's Buns with Pork Belly
Crispy melt in your mouth pork belly coated in our secret sauce sandwiched between a soft pillowy bun.