Gen Lee and Peter Chang brainstorm at their West Broad Street location near Richmond.
Our favorite: Chang's Bamboo Fish
Peter Chang is likely the only chef in America whose migration from one restaurant to the next over the last several years has been depicted by a map graphic in the Washington Post, from his arrival at the Chinese Embassy in D.C. to the opening of his latest restaurant this February in that far-west Richmond exurb known as Short Pump.
During a recent visit to Peter Chang Café, which is tucked away behind a Walmart, we learned that Chang's wandering days may be over. Or at least limited to Charlottesville and Richmond.
"He's so happy now," says his business partner and translator Gen Lee. "He bought a car, is working on his English. This is where he wants to be."
Chang now divides his time pretty evenly between the two locations, and according to Lee, they have been more successful than they could have imagined. At the Richmond location, there's often a two-hour wait for dinner, and to emphasize the demand for Chang's food, Lee points out that they go through a thousand pounds of eggplant a week for Chang's popular dry-fried eggplant dish.
"The dry-fried eggplant still haunts me," says enthused Richmond diner Shelley Sprouse, a loss mitigation specialist for SunTrust. "I didn't even know eggplant could be cooked like that."
A welcome respite from the heat, says Sprouse, was Chang's shrimp tofu.
"It's awesome, almost like a custard, and cuts into the spiciness of the other dishes wonderfully," she says.
"That is not too hot for you, no?" asks Chang as we bite into the eggplant, the first English sentence this reporter had heard the chef utter.
Hard to answer, given that the reporter's lips are numb and his eyes watering, but he manages a raspy "no" and really means it. The numbing heat, mixed with the distinctive taste, is what many of Chang's dishes are all about.
And speaking of dishes, Chang says that he'll be introducing a new menu at the Charlottesville location, Peter Chang's China Grill, beginning any day now.
Meanwhile, Richmonders appear to be going gaga over Chang, and the big foodie talk now is an argument over what Chang dish is better: the Szechuan style lamb chops or the bamboo fish. Our vote? The bamboo fish. Flounder so delicately battered it's like biting into a French pastry, only considerably hotter.
Richmond foodies could also have something else to talk about, as Lee says they are looking at a space downtown on the James River waterfront, possibly in the Tobacco Row District, but nothing has been set in stone yet.
Oh, then there's the movie about Chang's life that actor Stanley Tucci and Fox/Searchlight Pictures are spearheading. Lee says the producers are currently in China and that he plans to join them in a few months.
Lee shakes his head and smiles. Years ago, he was an executive chef himself, working for Donald Trump for a time. But when he and his wife, Mary, decided to retire to Charlottesville they opened a Li'l Dino sub shop in Albemarle Square, because, as Lee explains, it was simple and they only had to work three hours a day.
All that changed, however, when his friend and fellow chef arrived in town.
"Our goal now," says Lee, "is to raise the profile of Chinese cooking in America."