Why you should care
Because you don’t need a silver spoon to eat well.
Chef Lawrence Chu careens down the stairs and plops me down in the belly of his hungry lunchtime crowd. He flashes a big, toothy grin and lets loose a rumbling laugh, like a jovial Saint Nick. People constantly drop by our table to offer hearty two-handed shakes to Chu, gushing over yet another scrumptious feast. “This restaurant has life,” he says, leaning over plates of crispy pan-fried noodles and garlicky pot stickers. “I want you to see the action.”
A meal with Chef Chu is reason enough to come visit his beloved Chinese restaurant, aptly named Chef Chu’s. Sometimes he’ll be in the back kitchen searing scallops in his wok, or among his patrons humblebragging about that time superstar Justin Bieber gobbled down his food — but Chu is the true celebrity of this scene. He is a bit of a showboater — “We’re not the French Ladurée; we’re the Chinese Ladurée” — but he’s also got plenty of bragging rights. The old-school decor belies the patrons who frequent this famous joint: Silicon Valley luminaries including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, former Intel CEO Craig Barrett, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, Box and Alibaba executives and Steve Jobs before he was Steve Jobs. The lemon-yellow wall of the lobby is lined with photos of other name-drop-worthy diners: George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jeremy Lin, Jaden Smith, Jimmy Carter. The restaurant was one of Serena Williams’ first stops after her Wimbledon victory in 2012, and it was former Secretary of State George P. Shultz’s go-to place when he needed to hold an emergency meeting of Reagan administration officials in the 1980s.
Chu says “gourmet,” but the food is far from hoity-toity.
Chinese food is more than just chop suey, says 73-year-old Chu. “No talking for five minutes” — he wants me to savor the food, to stop taking notes. I bite into big meaty pot stickers, steamed to perfection and pan-fried with a light crispy shell. I twirl glistening green pea shoots and Hong Kong noodles bathed in savory soy sauce around my fork. Chu says “gourmet,” but the food is far from hoity-toity. A dish fit for a king typically costs no more than $15; even his special Peking duck, which must be requested four hours in advance, costs around $38, definitely not an arm and a leg.
After 46 years at the same suburban street corner and puny parking lot, Chef Chu’s is still the place to gulp back a beer and watch the Sunday game, and eat not just your regular Chinese takeout fare of moo shu pork, but also all kinds of Sichuan, Beijing, Shanghai and Cantonese dishes you’ve never heard of. Even on a Friday afternoon, the dining room is bustling, reminiscent of the crowded outdoor markets that Chu grew up alongside in Chongqing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and later Taipei. His daughter Jenny waits tables while his oldest son, Larry Jr. works the bar. While he could jack up the prices or start a franchise, Chu bucks the Silicon Valley grow-at-all-costs mantra and refuses to expand like wildfire. “Here, you feel at home, like family,” says Chu, as I polish off the last of my food. “And I’m an old man,” he admits.
Then he glances down at his shiny new Apple Watch. Outside the window, one of Google’s sleek self-driving cars zips by. The future is coming, whether Chu is ready or not. I just hope that when it comes, his restaurant will still be standing.
Chef Chu’s Shanghai Onion Cakes
Makes 24 snacks
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup boiling water
- 1/4 cup cold water
- Vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 green onions, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons lard, vegetable oil or chopped bacon
To shape, mix flour and boiling water with chopsticks in a bowl; then add cold water. Remove to a board and knead with palm of hand for three minutes. Cover with a damp towel for 10 minutes. Then knead again for 3-5 minutes. Roll into a cylinder about 2 inches in diameter. Cut cylinder into 6 sections. With either cut side up, press dough down with palm to flatten. Roll out into 7- or 8-inch pancakes.
To assemble, brush each pancake surface with oil. Sprinkle evenly with a pinch of salt and chopped green onion. Roll up like a jelly roll, then coil the jelly roll into a spiral (it should look like a snail). Flatten slightly with heel of palm; then flatten more with a rolling pin, making each “snail” about 5 inches in diameter.
To pan-fry, heat a cast-iron or other heavy-bottom skillet over moderate heat. Brush with oil. When hot, fry pancake on both sides for about 5 to 6 minutes total, or until it turns brown and a crust is formed. Remove and wrap in a dry towel to keep warm. Cut into fourths to serve.