Beginning with a modest storefront in southwest Little Rock more than 20 years ago, Bill and Lu-Lu Chi have put their stamp on a Asian restaurant dynasty of sorts in Little Rock.
Besides the popular Chi's Chinese Cuisine at West Markham and Shackleford Road in west Little Rock and its two satellite stores, Momma and Papa Chi — natives of mainland China who moved to Little Rock from Taiwan — and the rest of their family have branched out into other Asian offerings. They own Sekisui, a combination hibachi and sushi eatery (regularly voted as the top spot in Little Rock for sushi), and the recently opened Crazy Hibachi Company in North Little Rock's Lakewood Village shopping center.
They've done it all without much fanfare or press releases. Bill and Lu-Lu shy away from publicity (arranging a photo of the couple proved nearly impossible), and press inquiries usually are routed through their oldest son, Jason, who is completing a medical residency in Memphis.
Jason's wife, Thuy, oversees Crazy Hibachi. His brother, Jacob, is home for a semester from Vanderbilt University to help at the family restaurants.
The Chis also own the Ramada Inn Suites in west Little Rock and will soon start construction on a five-story hotel just east of Shackleford, where they also plan a restaurant. That project, Jason Chi says, should be completed in August 2004.
Jason Chi believes a focus on fresh ingredients sets his family's restaurants apart.
"We have so much competition from the buffet restaurants and such," he said. "Everything from the fried calamari to the oysters, everything is as fresh as can be. We don't use anything less."
Also, he adds, everything is cooked as if it would be served at family table. Family, Jason Chi says, is a most important concept to the Chis and usually is how the restaurant ideas are conceived.
"We just have a lot of family discussions over late-night dinners and we're a close-knit family," he said. "We have a lot of employee input, and we're always bouncing new ideas off each other. We read a lot of magazines, too.
The Chi's Chinese menu refers to recipes from "Grandma" and "Grandpa" Chi. "There really is a Grandma and Grandpa Chi," Jason said. "They are residing on the island of Taiwan."
Lu-Lu and Bill moved to Little Rock when Jason was starting the ninth grade. "Mom and Dad were looking for a place that was comfortable, and we had relatives working for [UAMS]," he said. "We visited a lot of areas, from California to Texas to here. They were immediately drawn to the people here."
What is now considered west Little Rock was still in development in 1981. The Chis ran Cuisine of China on Geyer Springs Road for 12 years (that store is leased to another family now). Lu-Lu cooked up family recipes, introducing many in Little Rock to such items as kung pao triple delight and crab rangoon, while Bill, who was trained as a chef as was Lu-Lu, poured drinks and managed the restaurant. The clientele urged mom and pop to expand, and that's when the current Chi's was born, in 1993.
Chi's has added a takeout store further west on Markham and has a small, full-service location on Markham across from War Memorial Stadium. The main Chi's restaurant continues to change, adding 48 new Cantonese-style dishes to the menu in the past year and authentic Hong Kong dim sum.
"We were working on the dim sum project longer than Crazy Hibachi, it was just a matter of getting the right team members," Jason says. Chi's patrons wanting dim sum sit in a separate portion of the restaurant, dubbed Papa Chi's, where dim sum carts are wheeled about with an assortment of the steamed dumplings and other small dishes typical at dim sum restaurants. Chefs arrive at 5 a.m. to begin preparations.
Jason stumbled onto the Sekisui idea while traveling between Vanderbilt and home, where he met the owner of Memphis' Sekisui and made it nearly a weekly stop.
"My folks were very drawn to the decor. And more important to them was the freshness of the sushi," he said. The Chis obtained a franchise, added hibachi to the Sekisui approach, and opened their restaurant on Shackleford in late 1999. It also brought Little Rock "sushi by boat," little vessels circling the sushi bar and filled with tasty pieces of fish or sushi rolls prepared by fast-acting chefs.
The Crazy Hibachi idea came about early last year, when the Chis — having fielded many requests for another Sekisui-type eatery from patrons from Jacksonville and North Little Rock — sought a restaurant that would combine Mongolian barbecue, teppanyaki (hibachi) cooking and sushi. It's been open a month.
"It's been a big hit," Jason said. "The reason we combined the three styles is that we didn't think North Little Rock was ready for just a Mongolian barbecue restaurant."
Jason Chi says he hopes to have a medical practice here and still keep his hand in the family business. "Both are about taking care of people. I don't want to be a physician who works and works and works. The two are very equal — with our restaurants, we want people to come in and leave feeling a little bit better."