Chef Jing Wetzel shuffles anxiously around the small kitchen at Zheng Cafe, the South Lake Union restaurant she owns with her husband, Greg, which specializes in street food influenced by her native Wuhan, China. It’s Wednesday night, and the place has just reopened after being closed for weeks out of concern for Jing’s family back home, at the epicenter of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak: Her uncle and aunt contracted the coronavirus, and her parents — who live in a separate home and have not tested positive — are currently under quarantine due to local precautions, with food rations dwindling. Even more alarming, the caretaker of the apartment complex her parents live in recently died from the disease.
As she prepares an array of hot dry sesame noodles and steamed pork buns for a steady stream of diners, Jing pauses briefly to reflect on her current state of mind. The stress from the coronavirus outbreak was compounded when a man from the Seattle area was diagnosed with the first confirmed case of the disease in the U.S. last month. More than 750 people in Washington state are being monitored by public health officials, while Seattle is now one of five U.S. cities that will be testing patients with flu-like symptoms for the coronavirus.
“It has been a shock every day,” Jing says. “Getting so much different information — it’s hard to tell what was real and what was not. But cooking the buns calms me down.”
That cooking has drawn crowds to Zheng Cafe since it opened in 2017, after building a following as a food truck for about a year. Though the fluffy steamed buns filled with barbecue pork and curry chicken are popular, the signature dish is the delightfully chewy “Wuhan style” sesame noodles topped with ground pork. Jing says the protein addition is her own spin on the well-known hot dry noodles, which are a little lighter in Wuhan, according to her, eaten often early in the day. It was also Greg’s favorite dish when he was teaching in Wuhan and met Jing in 2010. The couple continually tweaked the recipe for the noodles over time to their liking, serving them with house-made chili oil and sesame paste. Making the dish helped bridge a strong connection to Jing’s country of birth.
Now it’s helping them cope with a difficult situation. In January, the Wetzels first received dire news from China that family members were in grave danger due to the coronavirus. Communication was difficult and it was hard to tell exactly what was going on, since the Chinese government was slow to roll out information publicly. Then came word that Jing’s uncle was in the Intensive Care Unit and that her parents needed to stay in their home for an indeterminate amount of time. The quarantine only allows residents to leave every three days to retrieve essential supplies.
Being so far away made it difficult to know exactly what to do. But on January 25, the Wetzels — who have a 14-year-old son — decided it would be best to close the restaurant as a much-needed mental health break.
Unfortunately, the fear and paranoia that has affected many other Chinese restaurants around the country ended up being a factor as well. Greg says business was very slow when reports began to escalate about the disease. “There was a group of Chinese tourists that came into the restaurant and asked Jing where she was from,” he recounts. “When they learned it was Wuhan, they turned right around and left without ordering anything.”
The Wetzels tried to reopen briefly for a few days the week of January 27, and even encouraged customers to donate supplies, such as masks and alcohol wipes, that could be shipped back to Wuhan. But that effort seemed to fall flat. One reviewer on Google asked, “You run a business and earn money, why ask for free help?” The couple removed the donation box and closed the restaurant once more.
Shutting down hurt. Jing proudly proclaims that they were the first to bring many dishes influenced by Wuhan cuisine to Seattle. Though some variations can be found elsewhere, the sesame noodles specific to Wuhan are rare in a city that for years was inundated with Cantonese food, and has expanded more recently to include an increasing number of Sichuan, Xi’an, and Hunan options. Zheng Cafe regulars in the neighborhood include students and tech workers who are originally from Wuhan, appreciate the food, and have shared their own horror stories about relatives in the region coping with the coronavirus crisis.
But Jing and Greg could only stay idle for so long. They are still paying the rent on a shuttered space in Greenwood that was part of a failed expansion effort. This increases the pressure on Zheng Cafe: Closing for an extended amount of time could be devastating to the bottom line.
It doesn’t help that many of the ingredients they use — including Chinkiang vinegar — may not be available for much longer. According to Greg, the Asian market they usually frequent near their Shoreline, WA, home is already experiencing supply shortages. China is feeling the ripple effects on exports as it tries to stem the spread of the coronavirus, with seaports in the country slowing down because of a lack of resources and restrictions on personnel.
So Zheng Cafe is now open again, more out of economic necessity than due to any true peace of mind. Nonetheless, the regulars were pleased to find Greg and Jing back in the kitchen on Wednesday, and expressed their concerns and well wishes. Lines were long during the lunch rush.
Despite a notable lack of concern among most patrons, the Wetzels still put hand sanitizers on the counters, something Greg says he saw recently at a Shoreline hot pot restaurant, which also had face masks. The U District’s Korean Tofu House had quite a few hand sanitizers on display February 11, but they were not on offer as of publishing time. Greg admits it’s hard to find the line between reasonable health precautions and alarmism, knowing that as the only restaurant prominently advertising Wuhan food in the entire area, Zheng has the potential to be a victim of increasing fears.
“What do we do if they find 10 more cases in the city?” he asks. “Do we shut down again? We can’t stay closed because we’ll run out of money.”
Right now, the couple continues to anticipate more news from back home. Last they heard from Jing’s dad, the situation sounded perhaps a little better, with new coronavirus cases reportedly slowing down in the Wuhan region, and the symptoms from those infected getting milder. But the shadow of fear still hovers. “The toughest part is not knowing what comes next,” Jing says.
In the meantime, the Wetzels are determined to keep working as long as they can. If they can get to the warmer months, more tourists should come to the area, visiting the nearby Space Needle, and hopefully business will pick up more. If things get tight, they can maybe move from being open four days a week to five. More of those savory, chewy noodles certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.