Last week, I read a news story in the People’s Daily about a new restaurant in Changchun. Named for (and inspired by) the Forrest Gump film, it provides job opportunities to the intellectually disabled in the city. Owner Hu Yanping has been a champion for the disabled for many years in Changchun, and her latest project is the restaurant, which opened May 19th.
The first reaction upon seeing the name was to cringe. Understandable when talking about a country where “Helen Keller” is a popular brand of sunglasses. But it didn’t take much for the cringe to disappear and for me to fall in love with the story.
After seeing additional coverage on BBC, Vice.com, Shiftgig.com, and others, I knew we had to visit. According to the additional coverage, the Jilin Province has an extensive training program for the intellectually disabled and has helped support the restaurant’s own training efforts, but Hu has refused private donations. She owns other businesses intended to turn profits. This one is a labor of love. The staff is a mix of experienced restaurant workers supported by disabled workers assisting as greeters, busboys, etc.
Waiting to greet us in the doorway were three of Forrest Gump’s disabled workers. Distinguished by their black shirts from the rest of the staff, they were very excited to see us walking up and could be heard not-quite-shouting to their coworkers that there were foreigners about to come in.
Inside the restaurant we were quickly greeted by the hostess/manager and offered a choice of tables, including one by the window. Tables are heavier than most in Changchun, as I had read in one of the media articles about the restaurant. Very little chance of accidentally bumping these and upsetting the customer’s beverages in the process. Even at my height, I found them quite comfortable.
After being seated, we were offered the standard paper menus, then an employee rushed to get a picture menu for us to look at without being asked. Even though my wife is fluent in Mandarin, I am lucky if I can remember the difference between the characters for “pork” and “cat meat”, so picture menus are always welcome. The Bearded Giant is a brave eater, but it’s nice to know what you are eating.
The paper menu gives some background about the restaurant, its purpose, and its owner. At 600 square meters and with seating for 200, it’s definitely larger than most restaurants in Changchun. Hu has been a champion of the disabled for over 20 years, and the restaurant is an extended family for her.
According to the paper menu, all vegetables are organic (a rarity in China), and the meats are locally sourced from quality purveyors. Given how much the restaurant cares about its staff, it didn’t surprise me at all that it cares so deeply about its customers as well.
The picture menu was full of beautiful food options, as well as some inspirational messages about society and the disabled.
Our waitress was very attentive while we looked through the menu. Protocol is different in China than in the U.S. Here, waitstaff don’t drop off menus and then disappear while you decide on your selections. The waiter or waitress will stand next to your table until you have made all your choices. My first couple weeks in China, I found this distracting, and it made me feel rushed, since the staff obviously cannot be assisting any other patrons while I am looking over the menu. But with substantially lower labor rates, it is not uncommon to see 3-5 times as many workers in a Chinese restaurant compared to their American counterparts.
Our waitress was kind enough to let me take her picture once we had ordered.
The staff uses mobile devices to enter orders into the system. And I believe, though I didn’t confirm, that they also receive alerts when their customers’ orders are ready in the kitchen.
We chose three dishes. A pork and peppers dish, an okra dish, and a shrimp dish. I knew that you, The Bearded Giant’s loyal readers, would be appalled if I visited a restaurant called Forrest Gump and didn’t try the shrimp.
Our meal began with a complementary appetizer (not pictured) of dried strips of tofu with cilantro and onions. The tofu was cut very thin, almost like flattened spaghetti, but was flexible and dry with a great texture. The cilantro and onions were both exceptionally fresh and the dish had a wonderful aroma.
Once we had finished the appetizer, our three main dishes started to arrive.
The pork dish was exceptionally good. The peppers had spice but only one or two had that “ruin your tastebuds if you aren’t careful” sort of bite to them. The pork tasted like some of the best fatty bacon I’ve had. With a little peppering it could have been featured on a gourmet hamburger in the U.S. As it was, it balanced quite nicely with the peppers and I would happily order it again.
The okra was crispier than I expected, for being an oily dish. The flesh definitely didn’t have that cooked-down texture you get in some gumbos. It was bright and cheerful okra, still ready to attack the world. The chiles in this dish were aggressive, and I left them uneaten. But their mere presence definitely brought zip to the table.
Full disclosure: The Bearded Giant is not a huge fan of shrimp. He is huge. But not a huge fan. I like shrimp. I find them flavorful when done well. And if I am with a group of people ordering several dishes for the table, I’ll happily add a shrimp dish to the mix and might have a couple bites myself. But on my own, I will nearly always choose something else as my primary meal.
However, as a huge fan of the movie, and a burgeoning fan of this restaurant, I felt it necessary to order the shrimp. And I am really glad I did.
This was my first time learning how to eat shrimp with chopsticks, and my wife was kind enough to demonstrate the technique for me. I am certain I left a little too much meat behind. But they were very tasty. Crisp and well seasoned. The meat was tender and juicy. I enjoyed them enough that we got down to the inevitable “is that one yours or mine” discussion, rather than me just politely waving off the last two and saying “those are yours.” Forrest Gump Restaurant has done Bubba proud.
We were definitely well sated after the three dishes, but as the restaurant is a fair distance away from our neighborhood, I thought it prudent to give the dessert menu a try, so that we might see what we could have next time. There were limited options, and we were essentially full. So after our first inquiry, we told our waitress we were full.
She seemed worried she (and the restaurant) had failed to meet our expectations, and returned a minute later. My wife translated and indicated that she had spoken with the chefs and they had requested that we let them know what sort of dessert we would like and they would go ahead and make it for us. We had to assure her that no, we were just sated, the food and restaurant were wonderful, and that the gesture was much appreciated but unnecessary.
We asked for the check. Our tab for the meal, including beverages, was 123 RMB ($19.83 at current exchange rates). I’ve included the check below:
The main dishes were 42, 28, and 28 RMB. We were charged 5 RMB per bottled drink. Our small portions of rice were 2 RMB each. The plastic wrapped bowl and plate combos were 2 RMB each. And the napkin (or facial tissue) packages seen in the left of the shrimp photo were 1 RMB each.
All told, a fantastic dining experience for $19.83.
After paying, we walked around a bit so I could see the wall art up close.
As I finished taking my photos, the manager walked up and chatted with us briefly. We did not see Hu there, and did not inquire, but I imagine she was busy elsewhere. The manager indicated were the second Americans to visit in the two weeks that the restaurant had been open. She was very gracious and answered our questions about the restaurant, as well as inquiring how we had come to be in Changchun and how we liked it here. I mentioned I planned to write a review and she thanked me for doing so.
I can honestly say. No, thank YOU. Your restaurant is wonderful and I have had better service less than ten times in my life. It now ranks with Delancey Street Restaurant in San Francisco (another restaurant where profits are subordinate to the good work a business can do in a community) among my favorites.
The Bearded Giant gives this one a rating of “about 15 Dr Peppers”. 🙂
We will be back.