In Chinese cuisine, gluten-free vegetarian dumplings are hard to come by, but Angela Chi has managed to create one.
Using a wok, the owner of the Chinese food pop-up Chi Fan Le sautées shiitake mushroom, carrots, napa cabbage, and tofu with open flames, creating a smoky “wok hei” flavor, or “breath of the wok.” The filling is then carefully stuffed in dough – a time consuming process – and pan fried, resulting in a delicious dumpling that’s crisp on the bottom and tastes almost identical to a traditional dumpling.
When Chi first introduced them this week at a pop-up at Bunny Bunny, a restaurant in Eastern Market, she quickly sold out of 100 dumplings.
It’s the kind of brilliance that has put Chi Fan Le as a top contender in the annual Hatch Detroit competition which awards $100,000 to a local business to open their own brick-and-mortar. This week, Chi Fan Le was named as one of 10 semi-finalists in the competition, less than a year after she started her business.
“It’s been quite a journey. It’s crazy to think that I’ve only been doing this for a year,” Chi told BridgeDetroit. “I didn’t think it would necessarily become anything,” Chi said when she first started the business in 2022. “It was just like ‘I really miss this food.’”
A few years ago, Chi moved to Detroit from New York City where she would frequent Chinatown and Flushing.
“Chi Fan Lee” is Mandarin for “time to eat” and is a phrase Chi’s mom would yell out when dinner was ready. Both of Chi’s parents are Chinese immigrants, which her menu reflects, featuring foods like meatballs, shrimp and pork wontons, and a mango-pomelo sago dessert. Many of the items are made from recipes that Chi’s mom used while Chi was growing up.
When Chi first began selling food in spring 2022 she sold through an online Facebook group for the Woodbridge neighborhood. Later that year, she quit her job to run the business full time.
Since then, Chi has quickly made a name for herself popping up all around the city at places like TechTown, BasBlue, and Two Birds and leading cooking workshops. And now, moving up as a semi-finalist.
Justin Tootla, co-owner and chef at Bunny Bunny, said he appreciates what Chi is trying to bring to the city.
“I love that so much of her inspiration comes from her family, and the recipes that were handed down through her generations,” he said, “And that she’s not a restaurant chef, per se. A lot of times we, over the years, become a little jaded, but she has such a fresh perspective on food.”
Tootla said, “It’s just super exciting to see her cook and honor her family’s recipes, and her concept is something I think Detroit really needs.”
Chi said she was initially interested in opening a restaurant in Woodbridge, if she were to win the competition.
“Me being a student not long ago I was always craving for something that was really nutritious, but also affordable and quick to grab,” she said.
But now, she said she’s very open to other parts of Detroit and is considering Old Chinatown.
“The concept that we’re going for for Chi Fan Le is a fast casual Chinese eatery, but also having fun food-making experiences on the side,” Chi said. “I will be doing more homestyle Chinese food,” she said, compared to American-Chinese style food. Additionally, Chi said she always tries to include vegan and gluten free options on the menu, like the dumplings.
Chi said she owes her success to other “kind” and “wonderful” Detroiters that have helped her out, like giving her a commercial rice cooker, helping prepare for pop-ups, and partnering with her for events.
“A lot of our success is built from the support of other people in the community,” she said.
Chi Fan Le’s next two pop-ups are scheduled for April 13 at The Lexington Bar in the Woodbridge neighborhood and April 20 at Two Birds in West Village.