As an immigrant kid growing up in Rochester, New York in the ‘80s, whenever Hanson Li went out for Chinese food with his family, it would be at the kind of ubiquitous Chinese-American restaurant where every meal started with a bowl of fried wonton strips. Every time, Li remembers, his father would ask the same question: Why wasn’t there a “Domino’s of Chinese food”? Why wasn’t there a mainstream chain that served good versions of classic Chinese-American dishes like chow mein and General Tso’s chicken, delivering them to your home quickly and well?
The question stuck with Li for the past 30-plus years, even as the Salt Partners Group management company that Li founded added prominent high-end restaurants like Atelier Crenn and Saison to its portfolio. And now, the idea has inspired the Salt Partners Group newest restaurant, Lazy Susan — a takeout and delivery spot focused on serving what it promises will be better versions of the Chinese-American takeout dishes that so many people have grown up eating. The restaurant will open at 208 Fell Street in Hayes Valley on Wednesday, February 17.
The idea, Li says, is to spotlight Chinese-American food, a cuisine whose history in the U.S. goes all the way back to the 1800s, but somehow rarely gets the respect it deserves: “We want to shine a light on this very delicious, very common, very mainstream cuisine — and bring it to today.”
“Chinese-American food should be recognized as a regional Chinese cuisine,” Li continues. “A crab rangoon or General Tso’s chicken or a good fried rice, it warrants its own spotlight.”
Of course, there are other restaurants operating in this general space — Panda Express, with more than 2,200 of the country’s 50,000 Chinese restaurants, is probably the closest to a Domino’s equivalent. In the Bay Area, there’s Mamahuhu, Michelin-starred chef Brandon Jew’s own love letter to everyday Chinese-American takeout.
But Li believes Lazy Susan occupies its own distinct niche, with its focus on dishes that are cooked to order for families to share for dinner, gathered around the archetypal Lazy Susan turntable that the restaurant is named after. There won’t be any two-item lunch combos; in fact, the restaurant won’t even be open for lunch, at least to start out. And yes, the long-term goal, Li says, is to become a big national brand — the Domino’s of Chinese-American food, as it were.
According to Li, that Domino’s comparison isn’t meant to be a statement on quality as much as it is an indication of the restaurant’s focus on doing takeout and delivery especially well. After all, Li says, “[Domino’s] isn’t the best pizza, but it travels better than an artisanal Neapolitan pizza.”
In any case, Li believes the actual quality of the food at Lazy Susan will compare favorably to any of the Bay Area’s best Chinese restaurants. To meet that lofty goal, the restaurant has tapped Eric Ehler, a longtime Bay Area chef whose decorated resume includes a stint at Mister Jiu’s, Brandon Jew’s fine-dining Chinese restaurant.
Ehler, for his part, has had his own lifelong fascination Chinese-American food. As a Korean adoptee growing up in rural Iowa, he says Chinese restaurants were the first places where he ever felt connected to his Asian heritage. None of them were traditional Sichuan or Cantonese restaurants. Instead, Ehler recalls, he fell in love with places like Little Panda in Cherokee, Iowa for its $6.95 lunch buffet — for cooking the best orange chicken and egg drop soup.
At Lazy Susan, Ehler has whittled the typical Chinese-American takeout menu down to 25 greatest hits. The idea, Ehler says, was not to be “cheffy” with the food — to not try to reinvent or deconstruct anything. Most entrees will sit squarely in the $12–$15 range, and the orange chicken and the pepper steak will taste like how you remember them tasting. If anything, takeout customers might simply note that the vegetables are a little crunchier that usual, the sauce a bit less gloppy. The hope, Ehler says, is that a diner might think, “Huh. That was a little bit special.”
Everything will be made according to the traditional principles of Chinese wok cooking, Ehler says. But he’s also tried to modernize the dishes in subtle ways: The vegan mapo tofu is made with Impossible meat and spiked with housemade “Umami Crunch,” Ehler’s extra-savory take on chili crisps. The chow mein is made with a thicker, chewier noodle that holds its texture and shape. And the classic General Tso’s chicken retains its crunch — and doesn’t turn into a “mushy, gloppy mess,” the chef says — even 30 or 40 minutes after it comes off the wok. Like most of the entrees on the menu, it’s also gluten-free.
Mostly, he says, it’s just a matter of taking a bit of extra care when cooking and packaging the food.
Ehler recalls that after he became a chef in San Francisco, classic American Chinese takeout food may not have been fashionable in certain circles — but he never stopped loving it. He and his chef friends would go to all of the Bay Area’s hardcore regional Chinese restaurants. “We would get all the ‘weird’ stuff — the funky, the spicy,” Ehler says. “But we were always going to have General’s chicken or walnut prawns.” They’d sit down at the big banquet table, the Lazy Susan covered with with an abundance of Chinese dishes he never could have imagined as a kid in Iowa. But as soon as that General’s Tso’s chicken or sweet and sour pork hit the table, it’d be the first dish that disappeared. For Ehler, it was confirmation of what he already knew.
“That’s still everyone’s favorite,” he says. “They just pretend they don’t like it.”
Lazy Susan opens for takeout and delivery on Wednesday, February 17 — to start out, the restaurant will be open for dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday, 5–9:30 p.m. See the opening menu below: