LiLi’s Restaurant is a Xi’an Chinese restaurant on North Pleasant Street in the town of Amherst. The Student sat down with the owner of the restaurant, Li Jia, to hear about her experience running the place. The interview was conducted in Mandarin and translated afterward into English. The interview in the original Mandarin is also included below. Both versions have been edited lightly for clarity.
Q: How did you first start this restaurant?
A: I started this restaurant in January 2017. My child [was] off to college, and I didn’t have much to do, so I really wanted something that I could do myself at home every day. Because I am from Xi’an, and I think we have a lot of unique, delicious food in Xi’an, I wanted to bring some of the food that we used to make at home to this place, something different from American Chinese restaurants here. At that time, we also figured that we have a lot of local farms here with fresh vegetables that we can use, especially in the summer and fall. Now, in the summer, we rarely buy vegetables in stores and just buy them at local farms. I wanted to use this natural advantage, and make something delicious.
Q: Why did you choose Amherst to open this restaurant in the first place?
A: I’ve worked [in a restaurant] in the area for a long time, and after thinking about it for a while, I felt that the local people are more open in terms of food culture — they like to try new things. Like when we first started making Rou Jia Mo pork burgers, a lot of Americans didn’t really try it, perhaps thinking, ‘Why are Chinese restaurants making burgers?’ But after a lot of people tried it, they actually really liked it. Because I also have been here for a long time, I understand the food culture of the local people. People usually have a hard time accepting foreign things, but [here] they like to try new things … I just try to make some different things, so that everyone can try the authentic food culture of China.
Q: What does it mean to you to start a Xi’an restaurant in a place like the U.S.?
A: [I] think one of the things it solves is that sometimes I miss the food from my hometown — especially when celebrating Chinese New Years and other holidays, I really want to eat something from my hometown. The Chinese students here are the same. I’ve had people ask me before, ‘Auntie, do you know how to make this type of noodles?’ and [I would say,] ‘I'm really sorry, I don’t know how, I only know how to make lamb soup.’ [Opening this place] has helped a lot of students’ homesickness. Actually, at the start, I didn’t know how to make [the food] either, but after coming to the U.S. for so many years, I slowly just learned how to do it.
Q: I’m curious what kind of relationship you think your restaurant has built with the town, both students and residents? Do you have any stories?
A: Well, I worked at Formosa for a long time, so I know a lot of the locals. I know the customers who come often, and if a new face happens to come in, I ask about them and chat with them. There are students who come very often, and I know all their orders. [Some students] order without leaving a name or a number, but I can remember whose order is whose … Sometimes I run into some of the customers I see very often, and we say ‘hi’ to each other. As for stories … I’ve been here for a long time, and so one time a parent asked if I knew any Chinese teachers, and I sent a message in a group chat, and a ton of people sent in their resumes, which was just interesting. My son didn’t learn Chinese well [laughs]. I feel like this is also a kind of relationship that I’ve slowly built.
Q: How did you promote your restaurant in the beginning?
A: I never made advertisements for this place; it was all word of mouth at the beginning. And, let me tell you, the first day we opened, the first customer who came left as soon as he tried my food. Because I didn’t know how to cook in large portions at the time — I’d always just done home cooking — I didn’t have a grasp on seasoning.. But when the customer left, I felt very worried, so now every time I finish something, I taste it first and see how the seasoning is. Slowly, I figured out how to control the ingredients and seasoning and taste for cooking in large portions. Although this place is small, the reviews have been all very good, so there is a small sense of achievement.
Q: How did the pandemic affect your business?
A: I think the business actually seems to be better after the pandemic than before it, but recently prices have been going up quite a lot, so we’re trying to control the costs as much as we can. We closed our doors for two months during the pandemic, and after we closed, we felt that we could not keep them closed indefinitely, so then we opened again. Business was pretty bad when the pandemic first died down, but slowly, especially this year, with the students coming back to school, we are doing much better.