If you want authentic Chinese food in Charlotte, you have to search for it. But we didn’t know quite how hard we’d have to search until we heard about Chuan Wang Fu – the restaurant so under the radar, it doesn’t even have its name on the sign.

Open for two years, Chuan Wang Fu has been bubbling up on discussion boards like Reddit and Yelp and in conversations with people who know authentic Chinese food, particularly Szechuan (or Sichuan) and Cantonese. For people who either are Chinese or have traveled in China, Chuan Wang Fu is one of several places in Charlotte now (we’ll have more about those soon) that offer specialties you don’t find on the usual Chinese buffet — dishes like dry-fried string beans, cold tendon and tripe in hot chile oil, whole fish and dan dan noodles.

So how do you find it? You pull into Quail Corners Shopping Center, 8538 Park Road, and don’t look for a sign that says “Chuan Wang Fu.” Instead, look for a sign with Chinese characters and the name “Sushi & Asian Bistro.” There’s another name, Umai Sushi, on the door.

What’s up with that? Owner Fang Jiang, 43, is from Fujian province in China, on the southeastern coast across from Taiwan. His English is limited, so we interviewed him with help from one of his servers, Lucy Li.

Servers Lucy Li (left) and Lisa Li (no relation) and Chuan Wang Fu owner Fang Jiang in front of the Umai Sushi side of the restaurant.
Photo by Kathleen Purvis

He came to Charlotte 11 years ago, and for several years, he owned a small restaurant that he said was “American Chinese to-go.”

“General Tso, sesame chicken, beef with broccoli,” Li explained, while they both laughed.

Jiang wanted to make food that was more true to real Chinese, so two years ago, he opened a sit-down restaurant here, with an experienced Szechuan chef, Liu Cheng. To cover his bets, Jiang added a sushi bar down one side of the dining room, and put “sushi” on the sign outside.

Chef Liu Cheng is a native of Szechuan province in China who cooked there for 25 years before coming to America six years ago.
Photo by Kathleen Purvis

In these days of high-protein diets and poke bowls, Americans love sushi. Sushi rolls are as familiar as General Tso and his gang. So Jiang figured Americans would come in looking for sushi, and maybe they’d be willing to try something Chinese. Li tells the story of one couple who came in regularly for raw fish, until she convinced them to try beef with hot chile oil. Now they’re hooked and come in for that instead.

Jiang says he doesn’t plan to change the sign, even though the Chinese menu is getting as popular as the sushi. Signs are expensive, and Chinese customers who can read the characters know the name. What the sign actually says may be debatable: When we asked people who read Chinese for a translation on Facebook, some people said the characters appear to be a mix of Japanese and Chinese, while others said the sign reads “Szechuan Kingdom.” Qian Zhang, who owns The Dumpling Lady food truck, says the sign says “The house of the king of Szechuan.”

Li estimates that about 80 percent of their customers are Chinese. Others are Americans who come in with Chinese friends.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has found it – he’s been in several times, for fish with hot chile oil. Li says some customers drive from as far as Columbia, many coming from smaller towns where there’s not much Chinese food that doesn’t come on a buffet.

“This is really Chinese in style,” Li says. ““Very spicy. Chinese people can’t get this most places.”

This story first ran at CharlotteObserver.com.

Photos: Kathleen Purvis 

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