The son of one of New York’s legendary Chinese restaurants has something to prove. After Hwa Yuan closed years ago and seminal Chinese restaurateur Shorty Tang died, his son Chen Lieh Tang, now 65, will reopen the restaurant on Thursday in the very same location. The sprawling space at 42 East Broadway has three floors, with more than 160 seats that Tang wants to fill with young people, dignitaries, and more — just like the old Hwa Yuan did.
For Tang, making the place destination dining is about more than running a restaurant; it’s about changing perceptions of Chinese people and Chinese dining on East Broadway, he says. “I’ve lived in the U.S. long enough. I see discrimination,” he says. “If I can open a good restaurant, a famous restaurant, I can meet political people. I can influence people. I can change people’s minds about Chinese people.”
Tang never planned to return to the restaurant industry after his family closed a slew of businesses around a decade ago. But after he couldn’t find a new tenant for the building that his family owned, Tang eventually felt he had a “responsibility” to get back into it, he says.
The economy in Chinatown tanked after 9/11, and some — including Tang — say the stretch of East Broadway where Hwa Yuan lives never quite regained its position in the city, even as surrounding neighborhoods like Tribeca and Soho boomed.
To bring Hwa Yuan back to a broad audience, Tang has created a menu that features both traditional Chinese fare and some Americanized dishes that the chef and restaurateur thinks the place needs to draw a crowd.
The cold sesame noodles that made Shorty Tang famous will be on the menu, right above Tang’s version of a Caesar salad. Hot appetizers range from Shanghai-style pork soup dumplings to barbecue baby-back ribs that stray from typical Chinese fare. Seafood options include a Sichuan-style whole fish with hot bean sauce, a crab cake that skews American, and an entire raw bar with oysters on the half shell, uni, and shrimp cocktail. Peking duck is an option, as is beef shank with mashed sweet potatoes intended to be a steak-like option for meat-and-potato diners. In total, the menu has more than 80 options.
Such a smorgasbord of dishes isn’t quite on trend with the modern culinary scene, which favors slimmer options and tighter visions. Still, Tang thinks that reviving his father’s recipes — plus the raw bar that’s aimed at the “young generation” — will be enough to accomplish his goals, he says.
It’s Tang’s way of showing that “the Chinese are nice, that they don’t eat dogs,” he says. "I am Chinese; I have a responsibility to build back Chinese [people], especially in Chinatown," Tang says. "Hwa Yuan was one of the best restaurants in New York. Open it back up, and then you can rebuild East Broadway."