Evan Sloan dines at Gourmet Kingdom with napkins in his hands.
Every few minutes, he wipes his face, glistening with sweat. The source of his perspiration comes from the dishes on his table—that are typically red in color.
“We like to experiment every time we come here,” Sloan says. “How hot can it get? How many peppers can you eat?”
Gourmet Kingdom, located at 301 E. Main St., is known for serving authentic Chinese cuisine from Szechuan province, famous for its spicy dishes.
“Spicy food represents Szechuan’s cuisine,” says David Yu, owner of Gourmet Kingdom. “I see our difference to neighboring Asian restaurants here—we are authentic, and we have more variety.”
The long and slim chilies are a common sight in the restaurant. It’s in the dishes, it’s on the wall as a decoration, and it’s hung in bundles from the ceiling.
“We use a lot of dried chilies, and there are also pickled chili, green chili, jalapeno and Thai chili as well,” Yu says. “The products we use to season chili are from China.”
Yu is not afraid to spice up the restaurant’s dishes, even if half of his customers are Americans who may not be used to the taste.
“I guess a lot of Americans are exposed to Chinese food because of travelling or cultural exchange,” Yu says. “What they know about Chinese food is not limited to what they see here, so they want authentic food.”
Etan Longo is one of the customers who loves Gourmet Kingdom for its authentic taste. He visits the restaurant every time he comes to Carrboro.
“I’ve been to China a lot,” Longo says. “This food is the closest to Szechuan I’ve had outside of China.”
The history of Gourmet Kingdom
Gourmet Kingdom was founded 15 years ago. Yu, originally from China, bought it four and a half years ago when he ended his career as an electrical engineer.
“I just decided that I should give it a try,” Yu said. “I learn through the customers.”
Yu is from Kunming in Southwest China. Kunming has similar culture, language, weather and food with Szechuan, he said.
“We are neighboring provinces,” Yu said. “Our food are all spicy and we have a lot of fermented food.”
Friday and Saturday are busy nights for the restaurant. The ebb of customers coming in and out doesn’t stop; the waiters and waitresses are kept on their feet serving from table to table.
Fei Long has been a waiter for five years in the restaurant.
“Sometimes we have more Western customers,” Long said. “They can eat spicy food very well.”
Long is a full-time waiter in the restaurant. He is taking English lessons in hopes that he can go to college one day.
“If I can’t learn English well, then I’ll consider taking some technical classes to earn a certificate,” Long said. “That might be easier.”
Long greets incoming customers, takes their orders, and serves them dishes with a friendly smile and conversational English. But he said he thinks that he isn’t that good at communicating.
“Basic communication is fine, but if they tell me a joke, I can’t do it.” Long said.
Waitress Katherine Lee is originally from Malaysia. She has been working in Gourmet Kingdom for two years.
She said she wanted to work for a restaurant that serves similar food to Malaysia, a country that is also famous for its spicy cuisine.
“Szechuan food here is spicier,” Lee said. “Otherwise it’s more American style at other places.”
The love for spicy food attracts customers to Gourmet Kingdom. But Yu makes sure that they do not alienate customers who may have tamer appetites by also offering dishes such as steamed buns and dumplings.
“We have a variety for people to choose from,” Yu said. “Those who love our restaurant like to try different things.”
Sloan likes to visit Gourmet Kingdom with his mother, Alona Sloan, and his girlfriend, Jessica Solis. Solis is a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“We are working our way through the menu,” Alona Sloan said.
They complement their meal with a glass of wine and good conversation. But only Evan Sloan sweats over the food.
“I think we’re more adventurous eaters,” Solis said, pointing to herself and Alona Sloan. “As you can see, he has all the napkins.”