By Val Wang
July 9, 2012
BOSTON — When Lisa Li moved in with her sister’s family in Boston 4 years ago, the job prospects were dismal, especially for someone who didn’t speak English. What she did have was 15 years of experience running Chinese restaurants in Colombia.
“When we watched the news or read the paper, we saw that so many Americans didn’t have jobs. So we said, ‘Let’s work together to open a restaurant!'” she said.
She and her family set out to buy the perfect takeout. One in Somerville was too small; another in Walpole was too far away from the home they share in Malden. In March, they found something promising in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester, called Hong Kong Chef.
“We were here scouting the place for a good week and we saw that it does have really good business,” said Li's niece Mei Chen. “So we came and we were training with the owner for about a month, just seeing how things work and his interactions with his customers. And we kind of fell in love with this place because it’s spacious, there’s room to grow. It’s a packed neighborhood, so we figured that, why not? Give it a try.”
A neighborhood institution
By April the Dorchester takeout was theirs. After 5 years, the previous owner had become tired of the long hours and was moving on to run a laundry.
And even before him, Hong Kong Chef had been a neighborhood institution. Crystal Stanish, 28, remembered it well.
“It’s been a neighborhood place," she said. "It’s been here since I’ve grown up, since I was a kid. We always have it. I don’t live around here anymore so we make a habit, when we come to visit the parents, we come in and get it and have it for dinner. It’s just good, and it’s home.”
What really makes it home is the deliveryman.
“He knows my mom, he knows the family, he knows our address and it’s always right there really fast. And he’s so funny and he comes in," Stanish said. "It’s neighborhood, it’s the same people. There’s not a high turnover. You recognize people. I like that about it — and I like the food.”
Turning a customer into a regular
What the Li family has been finding out is that food quality can sometimes be secondary to the relationships with customers.
Chen said that since they’ve taken over, the flow of customers has slowed. She suspected it was because people miss the old owner and don’t trust the new owners yet. It couldn’t be the food, since the chefs are the same, as is the menu, for the most part. They’ve even added a few new dishes — like fried plantains, which some customers had asked for — and tweaked the recipe for others like chicken wings and crab Rangoon.
Chen had paid attention to the previous owner’s interactions with his customers.
“The customers would come in or even call and he would recognize their voice and he would say, ‘Oh do you want a D25 or a D2? Oh, no onion in your fried rice.' Something like that. He would just know from looking at them or just hearing their voice. That’s great. That’s something that we want to accomplish as well, because it seems like it’s one of the things that really brings customers back into the restaurant,” she said.
Ted, who declined to give his last name, has lived in the neighborhood his whole life and remembered the old owner fondly. “He was just genuine and kind and the whole family seems to be — the whole group just seemed to work together so well,” he said.
For Li, running the takeout has become a family affair too: Her nephew runs the counter several days a week and Chen works there when she’s not working as a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her mom helps out after her job at a dollar store. And they both pick up produce by hand several times a week.
While Ted isn’t quite sure about the new staff, he said he was willing to give them a chance: “Let’s see how the food is, how the comfortability factor is, and go from there.”
When I told regular customer Crystal Stanish that the takeout had changed hands, she said she'd noticed having a harder time ordering on the phone. But she said the food hadn’t changed and most importantly, neither had the deliveryman.
“He’s a great, fun guy and he literally has been delivering since I can remember. He’s been here forever, so hopefully they keep him,” she said.
Can the takeout evolve?
But is it any easier to start a takeout from scratch? I went to Wok N Talk on the border of Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain to find out. It doesn’t look like a traditional takeout: The walls are painted a cheerful lime green and orange, and udon noodles and pad Thai sit alongside lo mein on the menu.
Owner Nathan Long and his business partner borrowed $300,000 from relatives 2 years ago to set it up. They didn’t want to open just another run-of-the-mill Chinese takeout.
“You go to a traditional one, and you usually see hundreds and hundreds of items. I go to there and I have a headache ordering,” Long said.
So Long and his partner stripped down the menu. Only five appetizers. The main dish was stir-fried noodles: Customers could choose their noodle, their sauce and their meat, and it would be cooked up right in front of them.
But customers found the menu too sparse and business suffered. So crab Rangoon, chicken wings, boneless spareribs and around 20 other takeout standbys reluctantly went back onto the menu.
Still, Long didn't include any "very traditional" dishes like egg foo young. "Because I think the way people are eating, they’re already slowly, slowly changing,” he said.
A new generation with old tastes
Long hopes Wok N Talk is welcoming to busy young professionals in the neighborhood. He's hired non-Chinese waitstaff and installed a comments box, which overflows with tiny pieces of paper.
Some the comments affirm that Wok N Talk is fulfilling one of the basic functions of the traditional Chinese takeout: supplying the neighborhood with greasy food until 3 a.m. One customer wrote, “Late-night food is essential to the functioning of a proper society and you, you provide this — be proud!”
Wok N Talk has also found itself part of the gentrification of the neighborhood.
“Some people tell us, before, at nighttime, [the neighborhood] was quite scary. So I think that as we come in, as more and more businesses come in, and the community does more work at this, to keep the place clean, it will change the neighborhood. It will change the neighborhood,” said Long.
Where are you a regular?
We want to hear your side of the story. What’s your relationship with your local takeout? Do they know your order when you walk in the door? Do you know your deliveryman? Is Chinese food a late-night indulgence for you?
To tell your story, call 617-477-8688, or go to the Planet Takeout website to leave a story or upload photos. And stay tuned for the next installment of Planet Takeout, where we’ll explore more deeply the tensions between takeouts and the neighborhoods they’re in.