Jeff Kong knows the sweet-and-sour pork he cooks at his restaurant looks different.
For starters, there’s no fluorescent red sauce synonymous with the Chinese-American takeout classic. Instead, Kong builds the sauce from scratch for each order. The sauce is simple — water, sugar, white vinegar, a bit of soy sauce for color. Cooked until slightly thickened and tossed with thin slices of fried pork and garnished with wispy curls of scallion, the dish is visually much more subdued than the bright red version, with a piquant flavor unburdened by the dish’s usual saccharine sauce.
At Mr. K Authentic Chinese, which Kong opened on Yadkin Road in Fayetteville in mid-February, Americanized favorites like General Tso’s chicken and beef and broccoli take up only around 20% of the menu. The rest is reserved for dishes from Kong’s upbringing in China, from the seafood restaurant his parents ran in China and later, Oregon, and from his own time managing restaurants in North Carolina since 2014.
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Dishes like braised pork belly, west lake beef soup and dry pot Chinese cauliflower aren’t commonplace at Chinese restaurants most places, let alone Fayetteville. In addition to owner, Kong has had to play the role of coach, guiding diners into trying an unfamiliar dish, with the promise that if they don’t like it, it’s free and he’ll cook them something else.
Kong said there needed to be authentic Chinese food in Fayetteville, and it’s his goal to make it happen.
From China to Fayetteville
Kong was born and raised in Dalian, a port city in northeastern China. He moved to the U.S. at 17 to join his parents, who had moved to Eugene, Oregon, a year or so before. He landed in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 2004, with just enough English to tell immigration officials where he was going. Initially reluctant to leave his life in China behind, Kong made his way up to Oregon and then Iowa, where he studied nursing at the University of Iowa.
After a few months working at a hospital in Chicago, he decided to leave the medical field and returned to Oregon, where his parents had returned to from Iowa. There they ran a traditional Chinese restaurant. Kong said his father told him that if he was going to live there, he was going to work.
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Kong worked in the restaurant for a while, until his father connected him with someone at Sarku Japan, which operates more than 250 locations across the country, including at Cross Creek Mall.
“He said, ‘I got you a job. North Carolina. Fayetteville. Go,'” Kong said.
And so he did. He managed the food court restaurant for around six years until 2018, when the itch to operate his own restaurant was one he had to scratch.
The plan was to open in Durham, near the Duke University campus. He had the spot and the lease ready to sign until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Having lived through the SARS epidemic in China, Kong knew how serious the situation was and backed out from the get-go.
Fast forward to last fall and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, Kong was ready to give the restaurant a shot. Unfortunately, the spot in Durham had already been leased. Not long after, a friend told him that the former Orchid Garden location in Fayetteville was now available.
He wasn’t sure what the market would be for traditional Chinese food in Fayetteville but jumped at the chance. He opened the doors of Mr. K Authentic Chinese on Feb. 17.
Commitment to authenticity
Next to the large wok burner that roars like a jet engine when ignited are many containers and bottles of vinegars, oils, cooking wine, chili pastes, sesame paste, black bean paste, soy sauces and other ingredients, as well as salt, sugar and MSG.
“That’s king of flavor,” Kong said of MSG.
He’s an unabashed MSG supporter, though notes that he doesn’t have a heavy hand with the oft-maligned flavoring, which has been dogged by decades of racist stereotypes fueled by myth and flawed science.
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That MSG finds its way into the dry pot, available with chicken, pork rib, shrimp or Chinese cauliflower, which has longer stems and smaller florets than regular cauliflower, making it sturdy enough to stand up to the rigorous stir fry.
Sliced dried chili, chili paste and ground chili all go into the dry pot cauliflower, yet instead of an overwhelming punch of heat, each chili brings something different to the table, resulting in a remarkably complex flavor that changes as the taste lingers. The addition of tingly Sichuan peppercorns numbs the mouth, providing a cooling effect that balances the heat.
The steamed chicken in chili sauce tells a similar story. Served chilled as a starter, the deboned and sliced thigh-and-leg quarter are swimming in a brick-red oil studded with chilis. What might look intimidating for the initiated is actually a far milder, sweeter sauce.
Teaching the cuisine
Kong knows he’s going up against widespread unfamiliarity from diners. There’s a reason about a quarter of the menu is Americanized dishes, and while he has plans to add dishes in the future and make other tweaks to the menu, that percentage likely won’t change.
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He encourages diners to try the braised pork belly, the Peking beef and scallion pancake rolls or another traditional dish in place of their usual. Even if just one diner in a whole group tries something new, Kong is happy.
When diners are willing to try it, they’ve liked it, Kong said. He tells diners that if they don’t like the authentic Chinese dish, it’s on the house and he’ll make them something else.
So far, he’s only had to make the switch once.
“I let my dishes talk for me,” he said.
By early fall, Kong plans to have equipment in the restaurant to make his own dumplings, a variety of steamed bao and xiao long bao, also called soup dumplings. The soup dumplings are his mother’s recipe.
Kong said he plans to open additional restaurants in the future, including a Japanese restaurant and a high-end Chinese seafood restaurant reminiscent of the one his parents ran in Dalian.
But for now, his goal is to get authentic Chinese food into the minds and plates of Fayetteville. He knows it won’t be an easy task.
“I want to fight for it,” he said. “I want to work my ass off for it.”
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Address: 5048 Yadkin Road, Fayetteville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Closed Wednesday.
Jacob Pucci writes on food, restaurants and business. Contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jacobpucci or on Facebook. Like talking food? Join our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group.
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