After being among the first restaurants in Seattle impacted by COVID-19, South Lake Union’s beloved Zheng Cafe is closing permanently. Co-owner Gregory Wetzel, who runs the Chinese restaurant with his wife Jing, tells Eater Seattle they’re “taking a break from the biz for awhile.”
In January, the restaurant closed down temporarily out of concern for Jing’s family back in her native Wuhan, which was the epicenter of the novel coronavirus at the time. As COVID spread to Seattle, and Washington’s stay-at-home order was implemented, Zheng Cafe went through a couple of tentative restarts, but ultimately decided that it would be best to just shut things down for good. The Wetzels are now in the process of selling the place, along with a property in Greenwood that was a short-lived expansion of the restaurant.
Zheng Cafe opened in 2017, after building a following as a food truck for about a year. On the menu were fluffy steamed buns filled with barbecue pork and curry chicken. But the main attraction was the “Wuhan style” dry noodles — in fact, Jing says that the restaurant was the first to bring many dishes influenced by Wuhan cuisine to Seattle.
Those noodles were also Greg’s favorite meal 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, and topping them with pork. Before the pandemic, the restaurant was often packed with students and local tech workers, many of whom were from Wuhan and took comfort in finding a taste of home.
But the challenges of COVID-19 proved too much to overcome, and Zheng Cafe’s location didn’t help. South Lake Union has been an especially difficult neighborhood to maintain a steady stream of business over the past several months, as Amazon workers have been working from home, and will continue doing so through at least October. Even chef Tom Douglas has thrown in the towel, closing two restaurants in the neighborhood: Brave Horse Tavern and Cuoco.
Wetzel says he ended up accepting a “desk job” in Los Angeles, so it looks unlikely that Zheng Cafe will be revived in Seattle down the line, but a California offshoot isn’t completely out of the question. “Maybe we will try again down there in the future,” he says.