At six years old, managing partner of Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House, Shao Bruce, remembered going to an authentic Chinese banquet hall with his family. The food was delicious, but it couldn’t mask horrible service, dingy décor, and dirty bathrooms. “I wish I could be proud of this,” Bruce remembered thinking, “I wish I could bring my white friends here and it would be like them bringing me to an Italian restaurant.” And at six years old, he made a vague, yet ambitious promise: ““If I had a restaurant, I would make it nice.”
Moving forward with recent renovations, “we want to tell our own story and we want to tell it the way we want to tell it. Being a Chinese restaurant, the odds are stacked against us…there is a negative connotation of Chinese food in America…being greasy dirty…covered in sweet sauce. As an American first, it’s time we get to tell the story of what we want our food to be and not stereotype it or perpetuate it. “
Bruce’s mother, Dr. Zongmin Li, had always dreamed of opening a mixian noodle restaurant, food “she finds to be her comfort food growing up in Yunnan.” Bruce and his wife, Jai Cui, quit their jobs in corporate America to “try and find their own dream with what their mom started” remembering the promise he made with himself. “None of us have restaurant experience and we wanted to see if the food was good enough to make a business out of it”–now they can tell their story.
“What is special to Yunnan is…the biodiversity…and how connected to nature (it) is,” and the food culture is rich and diverse because of it, a place to explore new ingredients. The landscape, lush with uncountable cherry blossoms, wraps its branches around the snow peaks of mountains. Even the food resembles Yunnan– a death by landscape, a blending of one another like smeared paint.
The restaurant is intimate and illuminating, despite the darkness that came through the skylight. The natural wood lining the walls pays homage to the Yunnan’s connection with its landscape– and like its cuisine –is clean, airy, fresh, and alive. Service and ambience are of the utmost importance to Bruce as he spends his time talking to guests, bussing tables, and helping his wife, who is also the chef. We want to “give the community a sense of who Chinese people are and what Chinese food can be” – everything has to be perfect if they want to tell the story right.
When you start eating, you are looking through a painting, a map through the landscape. The warm Churi sake was floral and reminded me of a what I imagined a prairie tasted like, which made my partner laugh as he described it as mulled subtle Pinot Gris. The sea in the stream, the garlic butter crab dumplings, is a blending of buttery American roots and spice-ridden Chinese culture, paying tribute to his father’s upbringing in Cape Maine, New Jersey.
At one point in the dinner, as our waiter brought our spring onion and Dòufû salad, he said that once you eat this food, you never want to go back to Chef Boyardee. I felt like throwing away all the gritty and packaged tofu stuffed in my freezer, knowing that no five-spice blend from Whole Foods could make my tofu taste as silky and flavorful as theirs.
The Mixian noodles seemingly symbolized the end, without realizing that past my two-dimensional bowl of noodles was a culture that extended past the food in front of me. The creamy noodles flowed and ebbed like the violet paddy fields found in Yunnan, and I could feel that comfort, and brought it home with me in the broth splatters that stained my shirt.
When we thought we were at the end of the landscape, there was desert– a cheesecake with candied tomatoes. It was all so complex without the pretentiousness of crystal glassware and overwhelmingly long menus. It was like nature, how it can be so overwhelmingly complicated and yet so humble.
In Vogue, Chef Simone Tong thought back on a research trip through Yunnan and said, “Sometimes the food is so good, I cry a little.” I didn’t cry, but I could see through the landscape they had to travel to get here, that emotion behind telling their story and being heard, instead of perpetuated. Yunnan by Potomac allows people to see the beauty of struggle in something so good. That separation has lingered with me, just like the taste of their pork bao buns have.