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Fan Tang Café

A sharing of food culture

Opening your first restaurant during a global pandemic is a terrific leap of faith. What made two architects decide it was the right time?

Sheng Zhao and Ling Liu met in college in China, both majoring in architecture. They came to the U.S. as a married couple to attend graduate school, attending different schools and living separately for two years. After graduation, they worked at the same architectural firm for a while. Then Ling decided she wanted to be her own boss and go a different way - she began flipping houses. "Ling likes to be the boss," Sheng laughs. "She is very persistent, has specific goals, and doesn't give up until she achieves them." Sheng spent 5-6 years working for a firm doing domestic and Chinese projects, traveling back and forth.

Ling comes from Hunan, a province in central south China, known for bold flavors, colorful, and spicy food. Sheng comes from northern China where dumplings/wontons are staples. Ling's parents owned a restaurant. Sheng's parents were doctors. Throughout their lives together, Sheng and Ling have loved cooking, talking about cooking, and dreaming of owning their own restaurant. "Having family and friends over and cooking for them is wonderful," says Sheng. "That achievement and satisfaction is similar to architecture. You create something for people to enjoy. It's just faster! My last architecture job was the Apple store in Alderwood Mall-I worked on it for three years. What we're doing is very demanding; we're not working in architecture now! The process is the same: plan, design, think, then think again."

Chicken and mushroom wontons

Originally, they were going to name their restaurant Steamhouse for the street food carts that hold one-serving portions that people reach in and get. "We wanted a fast casual spot where cuisine was elevated and had the quality of Facing East and Din Tai Fung. We worked with a consultant in 2019, Arnold Shain, because we knew we needed a professional on the team. We walked away from the steam idea. It wasn't suitable for the market; you can't have people reaching into a hot area and getting burned, and there's a food safety issue. We kept refining our concept until we reached this point. Ling had an idea of how to do this right to get the bold flavors by using more ingredients, not less. We use all natural, no antibiotic chicken, grass-fed beef, Kurobuta pork, same-day fresh Asian and other produce."

In 2019 they found a space in Kirkland, but the deal fell through, and then the pandemic hit. "It was a positive thing. It gave us a whole year to work on improving our recipes; we have triple the number of recipes than are on our menu right now. We'll bring them in over time. Our kids are picky eaters, so we took that as a challenge to improve our food. They're excited to be a part of this. We did at least 50 rounds on the fried rice alone. They would say it wasn't fluffy enough, it was too sticky. Our best sellers are family recipes: wontons from my family like chive, pork, shrimp; 12 spice beef from Ling's family. The pork belly is from Ling's mom; the dry pickled salty sour veggie from my family goes well with the fattiness of the pork belly. We have a salmon dish-there's nothing like that in China, we created an Asian-style salmon." Wanting their drinks to be as cool as the food, they offer small format local wine, beer, and sake, along with kombucha, non-alcoholic beverages, and four flavors of organic tea.

12-Spice Beef Noodle Soup

They worked with an architect on the space ("like a doctor, you don't treat yourself"). "It was great. One of us would say, 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?' and the answer was 'Yes!' We have lighting that looks like origami, 3D white tile on the wall behind the counter, and a painted ceiling and wall by Seattle artist Robert Williamson. We're working on the outdoor space between us and Metropolitan Market with the landlord and will use our signature orange color and umbrellas. We found this space because until recently we lived down the street. We always thought the area needed a good Chinese restaurant. As we worked on this, we've had neighbors drop in and tell us they've lived here 25 years and there's never been any good Chinese food. Everyone's excited."

Technology is important to them, so there are several ways to order. A large TV menu outside allows you to order by phone, or you can come inside and see the menu, then order at the kiosk. While there you can pick up a drink or grab-and-go items. Each table will have a unique QR code so you can order by phone and the kitchen knows where the food should be served. You can pay when you order or keep your tab open if you want to order more later. Sustainability is also important, and they are using 100% post-consumer recycled packaging.

They have a commissary kitchen in Southcenter which they've used for delivery (no seating). "We partially cook there, then bring it to the café where we finish cooking. It's all from scratch. The kitchen helps us control our quality and consistency. We have to have those two things 100% of the time. Having a central kitchen will also help us expand."

They've given a great deal of thought about Chinese restaurants here. "Often service is not the focus of the operator/owner, and customers don't understand the food. It comes down to communication. Our servers help guests order and explain dishes. We want our food/process/ingredients to be transparent. People should know what they're eating. Often Chinese food here is not even close to the food we grew with. The real, deep reason we're opening a restaurant is to share our food culture with others. We want people to know how good it is."

Sweet and sour pork tenderloin

Fan Tang Asian Café
10615 NE 68th Street
Kirkland, WA 98033
425-298-4597

www.fantangcafe.com

Connie Adams/July 2021


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