If construction stays on course, Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen could be open by Christmas, one of the biggest days on any Chinese restaurant’s calendar.
Owner Karalee Nielsen Fallert, formerly of Revolutionary Eating Ventures, is aiming to open the 1700 square-foot restaurant at 218 President Street between Dec. 19 and Dec. 31. She says many of her current customers are anxious to try Lee Lee’s sweet-and-sour pork, Mongolian beef and salt-and-pepper shrimp.
“They’re coming from places where there are multi-ethnic cuisines,” Fallert says. “And that’s an area where we still lack, big time. From the time I came to Charleston 13 years ago, I realized we didn’t have great Chinese food here.”
Fallert’s now trying to rectify the situation by importing the kitchen crew from a recently-closed Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Seattle. The restaurant belonged to Lily Lai, an ethnically Taiwanese chef; Fallert worked under Lai in Salt Lake City, and has always wanted to partner with her on a project.
“You’re not going to see overly sugary stir fries,” Fallert promises, blaming the city’s many “fusion” restaurants for perpetuating the notion that Chinese food is greasy and unhealthy. “(Lai) has a deftness with the way she cooks.”
Although Lai isn’t immediately relocating, three cooks and their families are now in the process of moving to Charleston.
“For this kind of specialty, it’s not something I wanted to do without trained staff,” Fallert says.
Lai’s restaurant in Redmond, Wash. received largely lukewarm reviews from citizen critics, racking up three stars on Yelp. The word “bland” crops up in numerous online write-ups, although a few Yelpers praised the hot-and-sour soup: “Pretty much your average Chinese family restaurant affair,” Miranda L. decreed in 2011. “Delicious? Yes. Outstanding? No.”
The Seattle Times in 2008 reached a similar conclusion: “It’s more middle-of-the road, with good service, ambience and food,” Tan Vinh wrote, distinguishing Watercress Asian Bistro from the area’s Chinese banquet halls and unfussy noodle joints. “The bistro plays it safe with pretty basic dishes. Highlights include spicy salt-and-pepper chicken or shrimp; lettuce wraps with chicken and hoisin sauce; and shrimp, scallops and chicken stir-fried with egg noodles.”
Perhaps the most pertinent fact about all of the above dishes – at least for Charlestonians living on the peninsula – is that they’ll be available on Sundays. Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen plans to keep an 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily schedule.