Cult-favorite Manhattan Chinatown restaurant Spicy Village — a decade-old neighborhood mainstay that developed a devoted fanbase for dishes like its spicy big tray chicken and chewy hand-pulled noodles — is contending with a nearby restaurant that has sprouted up with familiar signage and a nearly identical name: New Spicy Village. The new shop isn’t an expansion of the existing restaurant, according to Spicy Village co-owner Wendy Lian. Instead, New Spicy Village, which opened in early December and also highlights regional fare from China’s Henan province, is a competing outpost run by Lian’s brother, Zeng Xin Lian.
“The new Spicy Village is not from us,” Wendy tells Eater. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
The newcomer — located two blocks away from the original Spicy Village, at 118 Eldridge Street, at the corner of Broome Street — has taken over the former home of Fujianese dumpling favorite Shu Jiao Fu Zhou, which relocated to a larger space in the neighborhood.
Zeng Xin, who also used to work at Spicy Village, tells Eater through his daughter who was translating that he started New Spicy Village “to try new things,” in a slightly larger space. The new shop also focuses on Henanese fare and sells nearly all of the same items that put Spicy Village on the map, including the popular big tray chicken and a range of hand-pulled noodle dishes, alongside a couple of new additions including a beef brisket in casserole. They are not trying to directly copy the original Spicy Village, Zeng Xin says, but rather execute their own take on the idea.
However, the new restaurant is using nearly the same name and branding for the recognition that it offers, according to the team. New Spicy Village’s exterior signage uses a similar font and the same chili pepper logo in its title. Next to the new sign, a banner has been hung displaying the original Spicy Village’s website, phone number, and address.
A similar instance of seemingly copycat restaurant operations surfaced earlier this fall, when popular Sichuan restaurant Cafe China said that a team of ex-employees took over the restaurant’s former space in Midtown and opened a new business called Chili featuring a menu and design allegedly nearly identical to the old space. Cafe China co-owners Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang accused the new team of wanting to deceive customers into thinking that the two businesses were connected. (The owners of Chili denied the accusations.)
At Spicy Village, Wendy says that she’s not angry about the striking similarities between the new restaurant and her business, but she’s been fielding inquiries about New Spicy Village and wishes that her brother and his team would make it clear to customers that the two restaurants are not related. And, she wants the Spicy Village banner displayed out front of New Spicy Village to come down. “I don’t have time to be angry,” Lian says. “I just don’t want to cheat people. They are by themselves. We are by ourselves.”
Spicy Village has been operating in Chinatown at 68B Forsyth Street, near Hester Street, since 2010. The restaurant, which was originally called He Nan Flavor, attracted accolades over the years from Eater, the Michelin Guide, and the New York Times. In 2017, a group of particularly dedicated regulars even started producing a line of Spicy Village t-shirts in honor of the restaurant.
Over the past eighteen months, Lian and her team have fought to keep the restaurant open in the face of an onslaught of xenophobia and racist reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, on top of the industry-wide business downturn due to the public health crisis. Last February, a documentary about Spicy Village’s efforts to keep operating during the pandemic spurred a GoFundMe that raised nearly $15,000 for the restaurant.
Wendy says that she was blindsided by her brother’s decision to open a competing shop this year, but “it’s okay” as long as the different ownership is clear to diners. “I just don’t want to cheat customers,” Wendy says. “I want our customers to know we are not together.”