Providence has become an unlikely destination for exciting Chinese food
For decades, Providence, Rhode Island, was a small New England city steeped in red sauce, steamer clams and wieners served “up the arm.” Situated at the head of the Narragansett Bay, Providence has had a substantial Italian-American population since the late-1800s, and its Little Italy is still home to generations-old pasta shops, Italian groceries and eateries. But thanks to all the additions to its dining scene over the last five to 10 years, you can just as easily find Korean fried chicken, Thai street food, traditional Chinese barbecue and hot pot, or cuisine from the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority from western China.
While a relatively small city of less than 200,000 people, Providence is home to three internationally renowned colleges: Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and Johnson & Wales. College Hill, in particular, has seen a recent influx of Asian restaurants — franchises like Vivi Bubble Tea and Kung Fu Tea, and casual restaurants like Den Den Café Asiana, which expanded this spring, taking up the old residence of a hoagie shop that had been a fixture of the neighborhood since the 1970s. These restaurants sell food that mostly falls within the college student budget, but also fulfill a neighborhood need, as the enrollment of college students from Asia has spiked in the last decade.
“Since 2006, our international student enrollment at the Providence campus increased from 836 students to 1,584 in 2011,” said Miriam Weinstein, director of communications at Johnson & Wales University. She said that this past academic year, the countries with the most students attending the Providence campus are, in order from the highest to lowest percentage, China, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea and Nepal.
Brown University states on its website that about 15% of its students are international students, a figure that has been growing steadily in the last decade thanks in large part to students coming from China, according to the database College Factual. The same website estimates that Rhode Island School of Design’s student body includes more than 30% international students, which has grown at a rate of 17.7% per year over the last five years. The countries that contribute most to that growth are China first, South Korea second.
The increasing number of international students has no doubt impacted campus culture at these colleges. Johnson & Wales has a culinary school with four campuses nationwide, and its Providence campus has made Rhode Island a destination for budding chefs. Weinstein cited a popular student club called Cooking Asia, which was founded by students from South Korea. “Its membership has grown across cultures and it is one of the most active clubs on campus,” she said.
While Johnson & Wales doesn’t track the number of graduates who open restaurants in Providence, Weinstein listed a dozen notable alumni who have. And now, it’s becoming apparent how much the Asian student population is influencing Providence’s food culture as a whole.
Last year, the traditional Uyghur restaurant Jahunger was opened by 29-year-old Johnson & Wales graduate Subat Dilmurat. Originally from the Xinjiang province in China, Dilmurat had come to Providence to study with the original intention of going back home to help his parents run their hotel and restaurant business there. But he stuck around, growing attached to Providence. He said he hasn’t changed a thing about the food of his heritage to adapt to its new environment. This type of Western Chinese cuisine is very rare in the United States — not just hand-pulled noodles and nose-tingling sauces, but also slow-cooked rice with lamb and yogurt, cold beef and cucumber salad. He says that the city’s student population has helped his restaurant get off to a good start.
“I think Providence is a foodie town, people are open-minded to try new things and we’re located near Brown, so we get a lot of young professionals and college students,” Dilmurat said. He also credits his family back home for providing him with a good foundation for opening a restaurant. “My parents always wanted to open a restaurant in the U.S., so I kind of fulfilled their dream and it actually became my dream.”
La Mei Hot Pot was opened in Providence’s West Side in 2016 by Mike Pan, an immigrant from China’s Sichuan province, with the help of Yani Zhao, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University. It, too, has stirred up the Providence restaurant scene. Pan said that he has opened several restaurants in cities throughout the U.S. since emigrating here in 2009, but they were mostly Japanese-style restaurants. He was drawn to Providence because of its big student population. La Mei Hot Pot is Pan’s first hot pot restaurant, where diners dip raw meat and vegetables into a bubbling, communal cauldron of broths (including the optional brick-red, spicy Sichuan broth). Pan says that when it first opened, about 80% of his customers were Asian or Asian American, many of them students. But to his surprise, his audience has grown and now about half of them are non-Asian Americans. “I think people are maybe sick of the American Chinese food — the fake Chinese food — now,” he said with a laugh.
Chinese specialties from Boston and other cities are also opening Providence outposts and finding patrons in its growing international student base. Tom’s Bao Bao, a Cambridge-based shop specializing in housemade Chinese bao and soy milk, opened in downtown Providence two years ago. Wow Barbecue, which began as a food truck in Boston serving up Northern Chinese barbecued skewers in 2013, has expanded to three sit-down restaurant locations specializing in authentic Chinese barbecue cuisine, one of them in Providence.
“I wanted to bring something that’s completely different but authentic to American customers and show that this is just another type of Chinese food,” said Boston-based Steve Liu, Wow Barbecue’s 34-year-old founder. Originally from Beijing, he came to the U.S. for high school in 1999. He said that his particular brand of barbecue mingles styles from Northern China with flavors from Sichuan.
“A lot of people think Chinese food is fried rice and General Tso’s chicken. A lot of Chinese-American restaurants cater to local taste buds and how they perceive Chinese food to be, and it’s become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. For us, coming from China myself, Chinese food is really so much more than just that,” he said.
With all the new regional Chinese restaurants that are expanding the palate of Providence, one restaurant is relying on both its Chinese and Rhode Island influences for success. The celebrated North restaurant was opened in 2012 by James Mark, a Johnson & Wales graduate and a New Jersey-bred, half-Chinese American, along with his partners Tim Shulga and John Chester. Mark worked for David Chang’s restaurants in New York before moving back to Providence. He says that he was lured back by friends who’d stuck around after culinary school, and fell in love with the city again. He calls North a “non-traditional Rhode Island restaurant” and is committed to using local ingredients.
He calls the restaurant “spiritually Chinese” because the communal nature of the dishes is reminiscent of the Chinese food he grew up with.
“It’s not 100% authentic Chinese and that’s not something that we chase after in any way,” Mark said about North’s cuisine. But he calls the restaurant “spiritually Chinese” because the communal nature of the dishes is reminiscent of the Chinese food he grew up with. He adds: “A lot of folks don’t get it and it’s fine, you don’t have to get it, ultimately it’s about making delicious food.”
Take, for example, North’s take on dan dan noodles, a Sichuan dish that traditionally has beef or pork. Mark started out with goat for a deeper taste, but didn’t find too many goat farmers in the area. After talking with a local lamb farmer, he learned that the farmer barely broke even when slaughtering older ewes. So he decided to buy mutton from him, which was more affordable for him than lamb and would increase the farmer’s profit margins. In addition to that, his dan dan noodles incorporate crispy rice cakes, greens and squid — “because Rhode Island has some of the largest squid fisheries in the country,” Mark said.
Students are far from his only customers, and Mark says that the population is changing all the time in Providence, with newer residents moving in from Boston or New York, immigrant enclaves from other countries like Cambodia and former students who decide to lay down roots in the city. And while Italian markets continue to thrive, the city recently saw the grand opening of its first large Asian supermarket, Good Fortune Supermarket.
This month, the team from North opened their highly anticipated sister restaurant, Big King — named after Mark’s grandmother, Big King Lee. Mark hopes it will offer diners a more relaxed vibe and allow the cooks to focus on their creativity — and on first glance, that means everything from curried pistachios to umeboshi-style curing.