Throughout Chinese Food Week, Eater is interviewing chefs and restaurateurs behind favorite Chinese food establishments across the U.S. Today we tap Kathy Fang, owner of Chinatown staple House of Nanking and its newer sister restaurant, Fang.[Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux]
Peter Fang opened House of Nanking, a Shanghaiese restaurant with a single-burner stove, in 1988. Outwardly inconspicuous, the restaurant continues on as a Chinatown travel guide fixture, drawing the attention of visitors and locals alike, many of whom don't even flinch at hour-long waits for a seat. Two years ago, Fang opened a new restaurant, FANG, where the focus is updated Chinese cuisine. We sat down with his daughter, owner Kathy Fang, to discuss her restaurant experiences, Francis Ford Coppola, and MSG, among other things. Kathy Fang, Owner: Our restaurants have always been a family business. My mom helps manage House of Nanking while my dad and I are at FANG. I’m fortunate enough that my father and I think alike and approach food in the same manner. It’s been a blessing to be able to work side by side with my father as a business partner. He has the craziest work ethic I’ve ever seen and it’s motivating to be around him every day.
Have you seen the neighborhoods change over the years? How so? SOMA [where Fang is located] has changed a lot over the last few years. There is so much more energy in the area now due to the wide range of occupants. You have the SFMOMA, Academy of Art University, the W Hotel, major companies like Blackrock and McKesson, and small firms like Hubpages and Kontagent all clustered in one area. We're extremely excited about the expansion of the SFMOMA, the new section will occupy the space right next to our restaurant. With all of these new developments and the Transbay Terminal to come in the near future, SOMA will become the destination hot spot for people to come to for art, food, drinks, and entertainment.
Chinatown, surprisingly enough, has not changed dramatically in the last 25 years. There’s something really special about this place that I have not seen in any other Chinatowns in the U.S. The Chinatown in San Francisco is just as much a place for tourists as it is for local Chinese immigrants. If you walk down Stockton Street between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., the hustle and bustle of all the Chinese people in the area buying their daily groceries gives you the same rush that you may experience on the streets of Hong Kong. There is very little turnover here with restaurants and stores. We recognize everyone here and we hope that the neighborhood doesn’t change in the future.
Do you have any favorite customers? If so, please describe them. I love seeing regulars at FANG. I've gotten to the point where I know my regulars so well, they don't even need to use the menu any more. Both of our restaurants have amazingly loyal customers. One family who frequents Fang started coming to House of Nanking 20-some years ago and knew me as a little kid. Now that little kid is running a restaurant that they visit with their grandchildren.
Of course, famous people are always fun to have at the restaurant. My favorite celebrity guests would probably be Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, who are some of the nicest and most gracious customers I've served. You would never think that they were big baseball stars.
At House of Nanking, we have so many customers who have dined with us and become lifelong friends of my family. One of my favorite customers from House of Nanking is Francis Ford Coppola. We all may know him as The Godfather, and he definitely looks the part whenever he is dining with us. But as a child, I did not know him as The Godfather. I just knew him as Mr. Coppola, the big man who always sat at the counter chowing down on his favorite appetizer, fried shrimpackets with peanut sauce. One evening, as I sat next to him at the counter, I turned to him and asked him, “Mr. Coppola, why are you so fat?” He answered, “Probably because I love your father’s food and eat it way too much.” Years later, I was finally old enough to watch his Godfather trilogy -- thank god he didn’t take my question personally, and had an amazing sense of humor! He’s got so much pizzazz and character to him. It’s always fun to see him at House of Nanking.
Where do you eat when you're not at the restaurant? I cook a lot of Chinese, Italian, and French fusion food on my nights off at home. I also post a lot of my own recipes that I cook at home on my blog: www.myfangalicious.com. But San Francisco is also a great city to eat out in. I’m a huge fan of simple but satisfying food, and Kokkari is exactly that. Cotogna has great homemade pastas and is open late on weekends, which is a major plus for us restaurant people who work late. I love having omakase sitting at Sushi Ran’s bar and tasting their amazing sake menu.
Do you have any strong feelings about MSG? I always hear people talking about it like it’s the worst ingredient on earth and should be banned. Quite honestly, I grew up eating my grandparents’ Shanghainese cooking and we used to joke about how you can’t make a great Shanghainese dish without using sugar, soy, and MSG. Try convincing my grandma to make Hong Sau Ro (Braised Pork Belly with Eggs and Squid) without MSG, and she’ll claim it’s not edible.
I think back in the day, MSG was more necessary because we didn’t have access to so many ingredients. These days, we have so much amazing organic produce and so many specialty proteins we can use to create that same umami flavor -- MSG isn’t really needed. I think eventually Chinese cuisine will slowly wean itself off MSG. Many restaurants in Shanghai now don’t use it and maybe five years ago, that wasn’t even imaginable.
Have you had any memorable kitchen disasters over the years? Thinking about the history of House of Nanking, I can’t recall any disasters, but I can say we learned that our kitchen wasn’t big enough for the amount of customers we eventually had. This situation could have become a disaster. When my father first opened House of Nanking, he had one tiny kitchen—with one burner—in the front of the restaurant. He used the one burner to stir fry, steam, pan fry, and boil. That wasn’t really a problem when he first started out because the restaurant was small and we never had more than 10 or 15 customers at any one time.
After we were written up in the Chronicle by Patricia Untermann, House of Nanking started drawing lines outside the door and down the block. The first day the line formed, my father couldn’t keep up with all the orders with just one burner. Not wanting to keep customers waiting or have them get angry, he made super large portions of dishes and served them to his customers straight out of the wok, regardless of what they ordered. People were just given whatever he decided to cook up. Service was super quick because there was no need to order—people were just fed once they sat down. Our customers loved the craziness of it and it went on for a little while, until my dad was finally able to afford to build a bigger kitchen with more burners. To this day, people still recall those days when Peter Fang would just serve whatever he wanted, straight out of the wok.
What's the secret to your success? Because my dad and I are always at the restaurant, we can accurately gauge what our customers like and don’t like. We’re always there to make sure the quality of our food stays the same, and we interact with all customers personally. We learn from our customers and our mistakes. It can be a humbling experience when you create something you thought conceptually was a great dish but then find out that there isn’t a market for it. As a chef and restaurant owner, you have to remember that the customer is always right. You can’t simply make food you think is amazing and just expect people to like it. When they don’t like it, you need to learn to let it go and go back to the drawing board to come up with something else that you think will blow their minds.
Do you have any plans for the future? Now that FANG has been open for two years and is successful, I’m itching to open something new with a more modern slant to Chinese cuisine.
- Kate Garklavs