Everyone has their favorite Chinese food place. Maybe it’s the one right down the road or it’s the one in your old neighborhood. Either way, the experience tends to be the same: a small storefront, limited or no seating, hot ovens and frying pans cooking one of any number of items that crowd the typical paper menu.
For the most part, the American Chinese food take-out experience on Long Island is the same wherever you go.
Miller Place resident Jiangnan Zheng hopes to change all that.
In May, Zheng and some Chinese and American restaurateurs opened up Jiang Hu in East Setauket. The airy, bright and open restaurant is inviting enough to make you want to stay to eat with your meal instead of taking it out, although that is an option too.
What differentiates his restaurant from other typically dark and noisy Chinese food takeout joints is the commitment to quality.
“We try to give them a different experience,” Zheng said from inside his restaurant on Route 25A.
There are lots of windows letting in sunlight. The walls are painted teal and white, adorned with decorative molding that gives it a modern almost beach house atmosphere. Behind the counter an old brick oven is painted all black. And the kitchen is hidden away, unlike most Chinese takeout restaurants where the magic happens right behind the cash register.
The quality of service even extends to the restrooms.
“Go to my bathroom. It’s super clean like in a hotel,” he added proudly. “We are building the next generation Chinese restaurant.”
Jiang Hu is situated in a duplex building in the old Little Joe’s III space, which shares a lot with Cupeez Drive-Thru convenience store right next door.
Zheng, 39, manages the restaurant for a group of Chinese and American investors who also have another restaurant in China.
This is their first American establishment.
Jiang Hu opened earlier this year to service both the residents who live in the area and the Chinese population who attend nearby Stony Brook University.
Zheng hopes that the authentic Chinese food he serves will appeal to both communities, a crossover effect where people raised on typical Ameircan Chinese food might dabble in the authentic menu as well as providing Chinese students meals they miss from home.
The menu is clearly delineated between the Americanized and authentic versions of Chinese dishes.
“We want to expose Americans to traditional Chinese food,” he said.
They have had some success so far. Zheng says one of the most popular dishes from the authentic side of the menu is the Spicy Shrimp.
It sounds familiar but the shrimp is prepared a bit differently than most Americans are used to.
“We keep the shrimp in the shell,” Zheng said. “The American way is to take out of shell. Trust me. It tastes better in the shell.”
People have also tried the Spicy Pigs Feet and Slice Fish in Chili Sauce.
“We have great feedback,” he said.
He also recommends the Wonton Soup, which is more like a dish your mother would make rather than a typical Chinese food item.
Their website describes it as big and stuffed with mostly pork.
“Like something a mom would make her family. Mom is making you nothing but the best.”
Not every authentic Chinese dish is appealing to Americans though. Consequently, the Frogs Legs in Chili Sauce have not been a big seller.
Zheng says they have limited their menu to only 30 or so items. That way they can control the quality of the food they serve.
“With a hundred dishes on the menu there is no way you can’t control for quality,” he explained.
He also likes the fact that he can see what works and what doesn’t.
“Some Chinese food might be too hard for local people,” he said. “We can test. We can see how it’s going.”
Aside from being close to Stony Brook University’s Chinese population, eastern Long Island provides a testing ground for bringing Jiang Hu’s next generation concept to the suburbs.
“Everybody opens authentic Chinese restaurants in Flushing or Chinatown,” he said.
Top: Jiangnan Zheng owner of the newly opened Jiang Hu in East Setauket. (Credit: Lon Cohen)