When Ying Liang came from Beijing to join her businessman husband in Fort Mill, S.C., she missed the tastes of home. Americanized Chinese food is easy to find around Charlotte, but not the bold Szechuan flavors she loved.
So on a trip back to Beijing, she recalls, “I went to my favorite restaurant and talked with the chef, Mike Lee. ‘Would you come to America?’ ” Remarkably he said yes. And in March 2015, after seven years of planning and construction, Liang opened Lee Cafe.
It’s a humble place next to a Food Lion, two stoplights away from the fireworks outlet stores near Carowinds. At first glance, the menu seems standard U.S. Chinese – egg rolls, sesame chicken. But turn to the back and you’ll find four pages of real Chinese specialties.
Lee’s dishes offer subtle red pepper flourishes from the Szechuan and Hunan provinces. He is joined by chef Au Bu Chen, cooking in the milder Cantonese tradition, and chef Fang Chen, who focuses on vegetarian offerings.
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The best way to explore is with a friend or two or three. Food arrives on platters built for sharing, and you spoon a bit at a time onto your plate with some rice.
Be sure to order something from the “Chinese Green” section – tender snow pea tips or cute little Chinese broccoli. Then try the Szechuan wonton stuffed with shrimp and pork in a zingy red pepper sauce. Or comforting Mapo tofu with ground pork. We’re definitely going back for the zesty eggplant with garlic sauce.
Lee’s showpiece is Szechuan spicy fish filet. A broad bowl brimming with dried red peppers arrives at the table with broth still bubbling from the wok. Push the peppers and peppercorns aside to pluck out the succulent – not super-spicy – bits of fish.
On Saturday evenings, there’s often a wait as the place fills up mostly with Asian families. But others are discovering Lee Cafe as well. Albie and Joan Fensterstock, transplants to Charlotte from Long Island, visit regularly. Says Joan: “It reminds us of New York’s Chinatown.”
Lee Cafe, Chinese and sushi cuisine
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday-Friday; noon-9:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; closed Tuesday.
Address: 1046 Regent Parkway, Suite 107 (at U.S. 21), Fort Mill, S.C.