The arrival of more Chinese food establishments on the North side signals a shifting culture around ethnic eats.
By Jay Friedman
June 16, 2017
Have you noticed a rise in Chinese food establishments opening in north Seattle?
You’re not the only one. If growth continues, I’m going to nickname the region “New Richmond,” as the abundance of new restaurants might save everyone trips to Richmond, BC for quality Chinese food.
Seattle has several concentrations of Chinese restaurants—most notable, of course, in the Chinatown-International District. For decades, Chinatown was a bastion of Cantonese-style food, diversifying in recent years with hot pot, Sichuan-spiced, Taiwanese, and other restaurants. Soon it will see the arrival of the popular, Shanghai-style Dough Zone in fancy new digs—a sure sign of more changes to come.
The University District has had its sprinkling of Chinese restaurants amidst a wide range of Asian eateries. One wonders whether standalones like Xi’an Cuisine and Silkroad Noodle Bar will survive with imminent redevelopment and increased rental prices on The Ave—though the number of wealthy Chinese students camped close to the campus seem to ensure a steady customer supply.
The growth of the Asian population on the tech-driven Eastside has resulted in the buildup of Chinese food establishments in Bellevue and beyond. Chinese food quality in Bellevue surpasses Seattle with favorites like Frying Fish for Sichuan food and Facing East and Monga Cafe for Taiwanese fare; fortunately, some Eastside restaurants are opening branches in Seattle—like Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, Boiling Point, and the aforementioned Dough Zone. With increased wealth in the area, you can expect higher-end Chinese food places like the new Peony Kitchen in Bellevue, though only time will tell if Chinese food can break through perceived price barriers.
“Ask most of the restaurant owners in the area, and they’re quick to attribute [growth] to one key factor: a major store opening on Aurora Avenue in 2015.”
Which brings us back to the boom of Chinese restaurants in North Seattle. Ask most of the restaurant owners in the area, and they’re quick to attribute it to one key factor: a major store opening on Aurora Avenue in 2015. Kaydon Zheng, owner of Qian Noodles, says, “When the Asian Food Center came, all the others followed.” He says that it’s a hub for young Chinese and other Asian people, especially those attending the four area colleges: the University of Washington, North Seattle College, Edmonds Community College, and Shoreline Community College. Zheng would know, as he previously worked at Rain Cafe, inside the building that houses the Asian Food Center. This place is popular with young Asians who stop by for bubble tea or light snacks.
Qian Noodles represents the expansion of Chinese food to other provincial cuisines. Zheng taps into his mother’s recipes from Guizhou province, showcasing dishes like lamb noodle soup with pickled greens. The house specialty, an option to make the soup sour, comes from the mountain-based Miao people—one of China’s official 55 minority groups. The sourness comes from pickled chili peppers, tomatoes, rice vinegar, and garlic, all stir-fried together as a paste.
Zheng says that the area’s growth mirrors the restaurant development around 99 Ranch Market further north on Highway 99, in Edmonds. He believes that the Asian Food Center can capitalize on closer proximity to central Seattle for its Chinese and other Asian customers. That said, he feels that in the long run, businesses cannot rely strictly on Chinese customers. Based on his business education, he says, “You can start your business with 80 percent Chinese students and 20 percent Caucasians, but success means flipping it to about 70 percent Caucasians and 30 percent Chinese.”
Ting Xiao Guo of Little Ting’s Dumplings exemplifies that standard. Ting, as she’s known, hails from Anhui province; she and her husband Jason Xu, from Hebei province, wanted to open a restaurant serving the type of food they couldn’t find elsewhere in Seattle, including a wide variety of fresh-made dumplings and other northern Chinese specialties. Ting stumbled upon a spot for sale at the northern end of Greenwood Avenue in Seattle. Not giving much thought to the location, she signed a long-term lease and opened January 1, 2015.
In a low-traffic area, business mainly served Chinese friends at first, expanding to locals later on. Ting says the opening of the Asian Food Center was a big benefit, attracting more Chinese people to shop there instead of further north in Edmonds. Some pair their grocery trip with a visit to her restaurant. She has a dedicated student clientele from the local colleges, with recent publicity making her business boom further.
“[New clientele are] mostly older people, since they’re the ones who still read newspapers,” she says with a smile, adding that her regulars must now be patient to wait for a table or even dumplings to go.
Chinese students are spreading their business to other locations.
“The students don’t cook, but they love to eat out, and they can afford it,” says Sandy Guo, who with her husband Chuan Liu—both from Liaoning province, which borders North Korea—opened Style Hot Pot at the end of 2015 across the street. “We have Chinese students who come here five times a week.” They call one customer “tong ho girl,” as she eats there many times per week and requests three plates of tong ho (chrysanthemum leaves) as part of her order.
Style Hot Pot is Chongqing-style, with beef fat in the broth to make it more buttery. Guo says she offers items you can’t get elsewhere, like a special type of tripe, Chinese doughnuts, and house-made fish paste that you squeeze directly into the bubbling broth. They have pig brains, too, though Guo personally doesn’t like them. Guo and Liu relocated from LA, where warm weather and competition made the hot pot business a challenge. Seattle’s climate better suits their business, and while they’re eyeing expansion, they like their current location off Aurora Avenue, as students without cars can conveniently take the bus or a rideshare service.
Guo points to the nearby Joyfish, Master Chef, Kiki Bakery, and anticipated openings of new places as a good sign. She sees increased numbers of Chinese restaurants not as competition, but as bolstering the area as a destination, providing “enough customers to keep us in business.”
Ting—who competes with Fu Man Dumpling House just down the block, and now has the new Rainiant Chicken Hot Pot sharing a wall with her restaurant—feels the same way, welcoming new openings.
“If there are better restaurants, more and more people will come,” she says, adding “Then it’ll be like China, where there are night markets and people don’t necessarily know what they want to eat; they just come first and then decide from all the good choices.”