What brought you to the United States?
In China, I went to medical school back in 1984, graduated in 1989, and practiced for nine-and-a-half years. I first landed at medical school in Wisconsin as a visiting scholar in 1998. We fell in love with this country, and we just decided to stay.
And to Cincinnati from Wisconsin?
I had some difficulty becoming a doctor in this country. At the time, my visa status didn’t allow me to work as a resident, even though I passed the board exam. I went back to school and started from scratch, and I got my master’s degree in computer science. I landed my first job in Milwaukee with a pharmaceutical company. That’s how I got started in sales operation. Since then I’ve always been a sales operation guy. Back in 2007, we moved because the company was bought out by another big pharmaceutical company, so I found a job here. I still work for a medical device company focusing on the instruments for the atrial fibrillation treatment.
What made you decide to open a restaurant?
My wife Rachel. She used to be a full-time mom staying at home with our kids. We don’t have any young kids [anymore], so Rachel wanted to do something for herself. I said, “What is your passion?” and she said, “My passion is cooking and serving people.”
How did you settle on Chinese noodles, specifically?
When we started this idea—when she had this idea—I said, “Honey, we have to prepare, because we want to open a restaurant with a specialty. We can’t just do what everyone else is doing.” She said, “Well, how about noodles? Everybody loves noodles.” We went to the East Coast [to do research]. We visited New York while we were visiting our daughter, so we were looking at what’s the cool noodles around town? We stopped by Philly’s Chinatown, and they have a handful of tiny noodle places, but they were all packed. So we were inspired by that. Hand-pulled noodles are a very common [method] with thousands of years of history in China. Why can’t we do this in Cincinnati? We hadn’t seen that in Cincinnati yet. We started with the noodles, and then we needed side dishes, so we brought in a chef. In China, Southern countries focus more on seafood, like Cantonese, and more rice dishes because of the warmer weather, where they can grow the rice. In the Northern region, they can only grow wheat to make the flour, [so] that’s why noodles are so predominant.
This block is full of other Asian restaurants. Was that intimidating or reassuring? There’s an old Chinese saying: “Ignorance is fearless.” At the time, we didn’t have any experience in the food industry, but one thing was for sure: We said, we’re unique, because we bring something different that other people cannot offer. We had the confidence and said we had to take a chance. Our mentality is simple: We’re not copying anything they’re doing. They’re each distinct for a reason; they still can shine, they can still do their thing, but we offer our unique thing.
UC has a lot of Chinese students. Do they visit and say the food reminds them of home?
Some do. Mostly they say, this noodle is delicious; it’s the best I’ve had. But some people [who] mention it reminds them of home. I remember two specific students who were from California and New York. Both of them mentioned that they had hand-pulled Chinese noodles before. This reminded them of that.
Why do you think hand-pulled noodles are far superior to premade?
First of all, hand-pulled noodles are fresh made. Every single dish is fresh made minutes before [serving]. Every morning we make [the noodle dough]—and actually several times throughout the day my wife makes multiple batches, or else it wouldn’t be enough. It’s labor intensive, but it’s fresh and it’s chewier and it’s healthier, too, because there are no preservatives.
In the years you’ve lived in the U.S., do you feel that Americans have become more adventurous as far as trying new-to-them Chinese cuisine?
Overall, I think Americans are the most open nation or group of people I’ve ever seen. I travel for my job to Europe and Asia, and most of those older countries have their own concepts [of cuisine], and they’re relatively conservative. They don’t open themselves to try new things. I don’t know if it’s because the history or background of this country, but [Americans] are so friendly and open to new concepts. Any ethnic restaurant, if you’re doing a good job and sticking with your authenticity, you will be successful, in my personal opinion. People are open. That’s on the bigger scale. On the smaller scale, some people will look over the menu for 30 minutes and then order chicken fried rice, and I say, “Oh come on! Try something else!” The majority are very open. But some [dishes people order] are very authentic, and we’re surprised that they try it and love it.
What are you most proud of as a business owner?
There’s a fulfillment. My wife and I, if we see our customers happy, we’re even happier. Whenever I see a one-star review on Yelp, it makes me so mad and nervous, because I’m that type of person; I’m hard on myself, and I want everything the best for every customer. I care about their feedback. When I see a five-star review, I get so excited I text my kids, and they go, “Daddy, you did it!” We’re not a big restaurant. We sell small. All we can do is the best service, best food—fresh, clean, authentic—that’s how we can win. Otherwise, why even bother?
How do you connect with your customers on a personal level?
When I’m not working the cash register, I’m walking around and talking to people. Some people are already my friends. Some people I know them but not well, but every time I welcome them, asking them, “Hey, how are you doing? Do you want to try something?” They always ask me what I recommend and if there’s anything new on the menu, so I always chat with them and introduce some background to them.
What are you recommending right now?
I always recommend the pan-fried noodles, of course. Then with the side dishes, I recommend the cumin lamb neck. To me it’s kind of a symbolic thing for our chef and her technique. Another favorite is the Dragon’s Favorite Eggplant. That’s my personal favorite.
Fortune Noodle House, 349 Calhoun St., Clifton Heights, (513) 281-1800