Last night, I dropped by Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen on the corner of President and Nunan streets to take a peek inside the soon-to-open Chinese restaurant.
The bright red door was still wet with paint, and the interior was but a shell. Investors Buff Ross and Chauncey Jordan were putting in some sweat equity, wheat-pasting graphic firecracker posters onto the poppy red wall with the help of sign-maker Gregg Pavone, while neighbors and friends popped in throughout the evening to see the progress. A couple guys even came by looking for job applications.
The corner store space is small and will seat 50 people. Owners Karalee Nielsen Fallert and Lily Lei sampled dishes from the kitchen and drank wine while we chatted about their relationship, which spans two decades. I'll have more on that in next week's paper, but in the meantime, I can share a few details about Charleston's newest ethnic eatery.
The menu isn't too big or too small, spanning classic dishes you've most likely encountered before like General Tso's Chicken ($11) and pork dumplings ($8) to more unusual items like Hong Sho Ro ($12), a caramelized pork belly dish in a five-spice dish.
Crispy chicken wings come slathered in a hot sauce with visible pepper flakes ($8), while the black pepper beef ladles a spicy sauce onto flank steak with onion, bell peppers, and mushrooms ($12).
The honey garlic ribs are small, bone-in short ribs coated in a garlicky sweet sauce that you can spice up with chili sauce made in-house with plenty of tongue-tingling sichuan peppers.
The recipes have been passed down from Lei's father, a guy whose every thought revolved around food. "Eating was his passion," says Lei, who grew up in Taiwan and was exposed to the many regions of Chinese cooking. When the family immigrated from China to Canada in the 70s, her father decided to put his passion to work and opened Leo Fu's in Calgary.
"He informed us he was going to open a restaurant," says Lei, "and that we were going to help run it." Her brother still runs that original restaurant.
Fallert convinced Lei to go in on this venture with her, even though Lei lives in Seattle. She says this will be a bicoastal relationship for now and plans to come for monthly visits to make sure the kitchen is keeping up with her demands. The kitchen is actually staffed with three cooks who have worked with Lei for more than a decade. It's the main reason she was willing to take the challenge of opening a Chinese restaurant on President Street in Charleston. And that's a challenge we predict Charleston eaters, starved for ethnic fare, will be grateful she took.
Fallert says they will have final inspection on Wednesday and hope to be able to open this weekend. Lee Lee's will be open daily from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (staying open until 11 p.m. on Fri. & Sat.).
Keep up on the progress here