Chow’s Chinese Bistro opened in Santa Fe in 1993. I remember a friend telling me about a great new Chinese place I should try, and I did. The food was a step up from ordinary—fresh, bright flavors, and ingredients beyond mix-and-match vegetables. In 1999, the first Albuquerque Chow’s opened on Juan Tabo, followed by another at Cottonwood mall in 2005. Proprietors Richard and Lucy Zeng and their son Jason opened Fan Tang two weeks ago in Nob Hill.
The Zengs have been in the restaurant business for three generations. Jason’s grandfather had Xing Xhan restaurant in China as early as 1942. But to relate the intricacies of the Zengs' vivid history would take a book.
In 1989, Richard moved from China to Santa Fe. At the age of 40, the Chinese language and literature scholar immediately began working in the restaurant trade. When he opened Chow’s in the early ’90s, Jason, then 13, got his first job bussing and learned the business from the ground up.
Through extraordinary perseverance, Chow’s flourished, and Jason completed his business degree at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management, with a concentration in entrepreneurship. The Zengs decided to close the Juan Tabo location in 1999 and start something new. The result—Fan Tang, Jason’s brainchild—is an inspired departure from Chow’s.
The building at the corner of Central and Carlisle is historic, and the remodel posed challenges. The Zengs envisioned contemporary decor and an open kitchen. They wanted to include patios on the east and west sides, but the shell of the round building had to remain intact. Lee Gamelsky Architects made it happen. The result is a spacious dining room designed for hospitality. There are booths, tables, free Wi-Fi (with outlets at some banquettes) and dog-friendly patios.
While all of the Zeng restaurants are predicated on using quality ingredients and many traditional recipes from Jason’s grandfather’s restaurant, Fan Tang is for a new audience. Jason tells me the menu is aimed at folks who want a fast meal in a comfortable atmosphere. Prices are moderate. Meals are ordered at the cashier, then delivered to the tables. On the three occasions I’ve dined there, my food was delivered within minutes.
Dishes are generously portioned for individuals rather than family-style. The menu draws freely from many Asian cultures with the emphasis on Chinese. Richard tells me they use as many as 30 recipes to dress their dishes or as dipping sauces, each made from scratch. You won’t find any standard sweet-and-sour packets here. I especially enjoyed my coconut curry chicken. The coffee chicken is a total departure from the ordinary.
In addition to the food, I was impressed with the Zengs business acumen. The wok chefs are drawn from the ranks of Chow’s trained experts, as is much of the staff. Richard and Jason treat their staff well, as I experienced when I joined them for a staff lunch of poached chicken and green scallion in garlic sauce. All that homemade chicken stock has to come from somewhere, right?