Everybody knows Zhang Mama.
Or, at least, they think they do: big clay pots of boboji, fiery bowls of dandan mian, mouth-numbing plates of dry chili and pork. Oh, and lines. The ones that stretch for miles (and hours) outside the original Fensiting Hutong restaurant are the stuff of legend.
And a legend is exactly what Zhang Mama has become. Because while the food is officially the hottest and most popular Sichuan grub in Beijing, the person – the ‘Mama’ – behind it all is decidedly more mysterious.
Like, who is Zhang Mama? Does she even exist? We realized that while we’d frequented the restaurant, we had no idea. So questions were asked. Google was searched. A random blog post told us that Zhang Mama (the restaurant) is known among expats as “Sexy Noodles” because of its good-looking owner. Um, OK.
Anyway, we called the restaurant in advance to tell them about their nomination but nobody showed up to our Golden Fork Awards to accept her eventual award. We were sad. Zhang Mama had stood us up. More drastic measures were needed, so we went to the Jiaodoukou restaurant and requested an interview with the woman herself. To our surprise, we were met with warm smiles and enthusiasm.
This is what we discovered: Zhang Mama is a friendly middle-aged woman, mama and owner-operator of three award-winning restaurants in Beijing. In short, she’s pretty damn busy.
“I really want to meet people and take part in interviews, but every day is so busy,” she says. “We have a lot of foreign and Chinese customers. I can see they are very satisfied when they eat our food. No matter what country people are from, they seem to love it.”
“I think it’s because the flavors we use are refined and we are always trying to make our dishes the best tasting,” she adds.
Zhang’s family moved from Chengdu to Beijing in 2008 after running restaurants in both Sichuan and Guangdong. Cooking, for her, is a family affair: She learned how from her mother, and today she cooks with a daughter of her own.
When asked about her multiple locations, she speaks like a true Mama: “I opened up this one because there were always so many people waiting outside the Fensiting restaurant. In the winter it’s very cold and quite rough for these people to wait outside for so long.
“I work every day until late. It’s quite tiring but I love cooking, and seeing our customer’s gratitude is really worth it.”
Photos by Holly Li. For more info on Zhang Mama, see listing for details.