If you aren't familiar with Tony Xu, it's likely because you don't speak the man's language. But there's a decent chance you've had his food.
Xu, a 40-year-old Chinese emigre who moved to the San Gabriel Valley in 2005, is the oft-smiling face behind Chengdu Taste perhaps the most buzzed-about restaurant of the past year. And while other notable restaurants such as David LeFevre's Fishing With Dynamite or Evan Funke's Bucato (both of which opened around the same time last year) have successfully married the man to the meal, Xu remains a bit of an anomaly. ]
Gregarious but hard-working, and seemingly always flitting between the packed Chengdu Taste tables, this Sichuan native has done little in the way of American press – even as curious Westsiders line the sidewalk out front for hours, hoping to snag a hefty plate of Diced Rabbit With Younger Sister's Secret Recipe in less than three hours.
Xu actually has been talking up a storm in his native tongue, but on Weibo, the massive Chinese social media platform, rather than in the local press. He credits the unusual tactic with helping him find his footing early on within the expansive Chinese communities of the San Gabriel Valley.
“I don't know why I have been so successful,” says Xu, as translated by longtime Chengdu Taste booster Tony Chen, who has been writing about the restaurant for the better part of a year. “But I must thank Weibo. I was the first to [promote my restaurant] there, and now there are many that have followed.”
Xu posts early and often on Weibo, giving customers rare glimpses of his eventual second Chengdu Taste location, letting them reserve tables with him through the site and even asking for suggestions on traditional Sichuan dishes that might just end up on the menu some day.
Of course, all the Weibo in the world wouldn't save a poorly run restaurant – especially along Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, where storefronts swap owners and flip menus at breakneck pace.
What really keeps the waits perturbingly long at Chengdu Taste is the food.
“I want to cook traditionally, to bring back the recipes from before,” Xu says. “This cooking is something that even people local to Chengdu haven't seen for years.” It hasn't been seen much in America, either.
One finer point of Chengdu Taste that has been endlessly worked over in the English-language social media sphere is the wait, which on weekends can stretch for hours. A second location in Rosemead, due to open this spring, is hoping to ease the crush some, but as names from Ruth Reichl to Jonah Hill continue to show up – and tweet and Instagram their experiences – don't expect the lines to abate much.
“I never wanted to be famous – just to do my work every day, to support my family and make a living.” Whether or not you consider Xu famous might just depend on the language you speak.