New Chinese restaurant near completion

The new Chinese restaurant plans to serve both authentic Chinese food and localized special.


Tian Liu

Yi Zhang checks equipments at Lark and Owl on July 23, 2019. Zhang is the co-owner of JiangHu Asian Street Food and plans to open a new restaurant, Lark and Owl soon. (Tian Liu/The Daily Iowan)

Tian Liu, News Reporter

A new Chinese restaurant is set to open as UI students stream back into Iowa City.

The small restaurant, called Lark&Owl, is located next to the No.18 Karaoke on South Gilbert Street. It will open next month, said Yi Zhang, the owner.

“We [mostly] serve early breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and late-night food from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., so it’s called Lark&Owl,” Zhang said.

Like his other restaurant in town, JiangHu Asian Street Food, the new restaurant will offer authentic Chinese food, he said. But to better serve local customers, the establishment will try to localize some food and to improve the flavor so it better fits local preferences.

“For example, for Youtiao, the fried dough, which is typical Chinese breakfast food, we plan to make it both in the original flavor and in the cinnamon and sugar flavor,” Zhang said.

The 24-year-old has been running his businesses in town for more than one and a half years. Zhang is a former pre-business student at the University of Iowa who dropped out of school in 2016, when his family faced financial issues, and started his own businesses in town.

He started with JiangHu Asian Street Food. With the ambition of bringing authentic Chinese food from his hometown in the Shanxi Province, which he described as the Midwest of China, to Iowa City, he created the menu based on Shanxi’s featured dishes, including Yo Po noodles and street food such as the self-building soup, Ma La Tan and stir-fried Ma La Xiang Guo.

“In Iowa, I haven’t seen Ma La Tan or Ma La Xiang Guo before,” Zhang said. “In this part, we can hold some competitive advantages for the people who know it and who want to find it here. Also, this part is easy to process.”

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The decision also created challenges. After the JiangHu Asian Street Food opened, he said, the restaurant faced such problems as generating profit for about six to eight months. With the help of his contractors, lawyer, and landlord, he made the first step to open the restaurant. But he hadn’t thought that being too authentic could be an issue for the locals.

“When I built this place, I want to serve to Chinese students and comfort them for their nostalgia,” Zhang said. “The purpose of introducing new food to Iowa City was failed at the beginning. No locals came.”

Social media became his lifesaver. Zhang started to promote on Facebook and Yelp. He not only wrote food introductions, he also made promotional sales to encourage people to come and try the food.

“Surprisingly, I couldn’t believe that local people here have such high acceptance for a totally different culture,” he said. “Now, almost 80 percent of our sales come from the locals.”

Zhang said this is why his restaurant could survive in the college holiday season when international students are out of town.

“It’s quite busy during the summertime. Before I worked there as a receptionist, I hadn’t thought that there were so many things [to pay attention to],” Yingying Wang, a receptionist at JingHu Asian Street Food, said in Chinese, then translated.

Wang said most customers love wheat food, such as the Chinese burger. For those who haven’t had it before, it is a surprise when they give a try.

“I think that the sign [of the restaurant] speaks itself. There is very little English on that,” said Jenna Kennedy, an office manager for Zhang’s general contractor. “… places like that are important in a university community where we have a place that [foreigners] can get a hot bowl of food that tastes like home.”

Zhang said he plans to bring the prices of the food at his restaurant down in the future and to be more affordable for the locals. He hopes one day in the future, Yo Po noodles, and the soup the restaurant serves could join local people’s diet.