Xueling Zhang is “a working man, not a talking man.” So he told us, through the translation of his daughter, Elsa Zhang, before he returned his full attention to fashioning a set of crab-and-pork xiao long bao. Those faintly sweet soup dumplings, as they’re often called, are a signature item at Memories of Shanghai, his family’s recently expanded restaurant in Forest Hills. Chef Zhang, we might say on his behalf, lets his hands, and his delicious dim sum, do the talking.
At greater length we sat down with Elsa – in a cozy booth, retained from the previous restaurant tenant, a diner – to learn more about her father’s long affinity for the kitchen, and especially for dim sum. Life as a fry cook was never for him, Elsa tells us, even when the family lived in Shanghai. There was “too much oil and smoke,” she recalls. Preparing dim sum – many items, including xiao long bao, are steamed – was “clean.”
In 2002, when Chef Zhang decided to try his hand in New York – traveling alone, and joined by his family only later – he had hopes of running a restaurant of his own. Ultimately, however, that wouldn’t be possible until other members of the close-knit family could literally lend a hand. And, indeed, Xueling Zhang and his wife, Ziumei; Elsa and her husband, Aaron Zhao; and their four children “all live under one roof” nearby, Elsa tells us.
Chef Zhang, we might say on his behalf, lets his hands, and his delicious dim sum, do the talking.
In 2018, when Chef Zhang, already in his 60s, had been cooking professionally in New York for many years, the right-sized opportunity finally presented itself in the family’s own neighborhood. Tokyo Teriyaki, a tiny restaurant at the back of an alley between a parking garage and the local police precinct, fell vacant. Its dining room might have accommodated ten customers, snugly; in fair weather, a few more could sit outside. But the rent was within the family’s reach, and the other adults in the family could provide Chef Zhang with a staff. “We got all together; we did it,” Elsa says.
Memories of Shanghai opened in September of that year. The restaurant also has a Chinese name: Dian Dim Sum, which, Elsa explains, simply means “a little dim sum.” In other words, not a grand weekend meal at a huge round table serviced by carts wheeling up and down the aisles – there was no room for any of that – just a few dishes that might do for a snack, or a light meal.
Almost immediately the restaurant won modest fame beyond Forest Hills with the publication of an article in The New York Times that wrote of “building an entirely new Chinatown” in the neighborhood. This was, and still is, a stretch: A recent walk took us past banks and barbershops, outlet stores and pharmacies, a tap house and a taqueria, a chicken joint and a sushi house, but we encountered little evidence of spoken or written Shanghainese, Mandarin or other Chinese languages, except inside the few scattered Chinese restaurants.
Even so, Memories of Shanghai was successful enough that the family soon considered what a larger restaurant could do for business. “Before the pandemic,” however, Elsa observes, “the bigger space was too expensive.” The events of early 2020 changed those calculations. When the decade-old Forest Hills Diner, just up the block, permanently closed in May, the family was able to expand. Their landlord – the same landlord as at the original restaurant – was “very kind,” Elsa says; he “wants to help us survive.”
Expanding the kitchen and the dining room, however, would also entail expanding the menu and the staff. Memories of Shanghai would no longer be just a family business.
A half-year into the pandemic, Elsa notes, “many good chefs [were] out of work in Manhattan.” Among them was Shengming Zhou, who had worked with Elsa’s father before, and who joined Memories of Shanghai when the restaurant relaunched in November 2020. Following his own recipes, Chef Zhou has introduced the seafood, pork and chicken dishes that customers expect from a full-service Shanghainese restaurant. At Aaron’s suggestion he prepared for us a sweet-and-sour whole fish, whose characteristic Shanghai flavor complements its shimmering red color.
Aaron, for his part, has taken on new duties of his own. As the pandemic tide continues to turn in New York, the family has reopened the old, tiny restaurant as a ramen-ya, with Aaron at the helm. (He and Elsa went to school in Japan.) Keika Ramen soft-opened in mid-March.
Chef Zhang continues to prepare the likes of succulent xiao long bao, shatteringly flaky radish puffs, and custardlike tofu “pudding” – sweetened with ginger syrup, or in a savory version (we think it’s even better) with seaweed and dried shrimp. But at least for the time being, Covid concerns weigh directly on Chef Zhang’s schedule.
Memories of Shanghai now employs about 15 people, all told. Many of the non-family staff, who come from various regions of China, live in Flushing, and they worry about taking public transportation to and from Forest Hills. So after his morning dim sum session, Chef Zhang drives his car every day to Flushing to fetch the staff before the restaurant opens at lunchtime; when need be, Aaron drives a second car. They reverse the process every evening, at the end of the dinnertime shift.
Elsa, who manages the restaurant, has a family of her own to manage as well – a greater challenge while New York City’s public schools have not fully resumed in-person classes. On the afternoon of our conversation, her four children sat together in one booth near the back, peaceably occupied with what appeared to be a construction-themed education video.
Elsa has no thoughts that her children might enter the family business – not “if they can find some bigger world.” With their grandfather as inspiration, how far might they travel?
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