By Cameron Lee
Photo: Jeremy Yen (L) and Max Huang (R)
February 26, 2020
There’s nothing quite like a warm and fluffy Chinese bun (bao). The bounce of the soft half-bread, half-pastry texture encasing a savory filling is comforting in so many ways. “It’s the ingredients that are put into the bun, and the combination of different flours that’s mixed together to produce a more fluffy consistency,” said Jeremy Yen as we sat in the boisterous food court at Super G Mart. The faint smell of fish, the clanking of dishes, and various Asian languages being spoken in the background may sound familiar for some but foreign to many in the city.
Jeremy Yen and Max Huang, two Charlotte natives and UNCC graduates took over Honey Buns Cafe inside Super G Mart in 2017. But their backgrounds in food, specifically Chinese food, go a lot deeper in Charlotte’s young history of ethnic cuisine. Born in Long Island, New York, Yen moved to the city at just two years old when his father Meng Yen was asked to help start a restaurant in Charlotte. After Yen’s Long Island family home tragically burned down, Meng Yen took the insurance money and moved to Charlotte to open the 11-table Chinese eatery in 1990, Yen’s Chinese Restaurant. It was a risky move, but years of experience as a head chef and manager of multiple restaurants in New York helped out. “For my father, for his generation, school was not one of their priorities, because they came a little more impoverished. So they picked up trades,” said Yen.
In the early ‘90s, Charlotte lacked cultural cuisines and the restaurant served as an entry-level introduction to Chinese fare in the Spanish Trace Shopping Center off Monroe Road. “I grew up in a time period when Dragon Court and the Dim Sum place on Central Avenue were very popular. Those were really the hot spots for traditional Chinese,” said Yen. “That was the Chinese thing to do, to go there on Sundays to Dragon Court and then shop at the Asian grocery store. Every Sunday, that was the place to be.”
While the city has changed over the years, Charlotte still lacks many truly authentic Chinese food options. From Szechuan to Cantonese flavors, Chinese cuisine is as boundless as any cultural fare. For Honey Buns Cafe, the dominating influence is Taiwanese. The noodle recipes created by Max’s father (Chung Hsing Huang) have been passed over to Yen and refined to incorporate the flavors from his own father’s recipe, and the braised beef noodle soup is a standard. The hearty, slightly salty soup flecked with beef fat and succulent chunks of meat coats the thick-cut and buoyant Chinese noodles. Twisting the noodles to catch equal parts of beef and bok choy warms the soul on a frigid day. Another Taiwanese-influenced dish is the Beijing noodles; the chunky bean sauce fused with minced pork and vegetables is reminiscent of the classic Chinese-Korean noodle dish, jajangmyeon.
While the noodle recipes at Honey Buns Cafe are heavily influenced by Yen’s family, the buns are a craft honed by Max Huang and his family. Arriving in the U.S. in 2004 from Taichung, Taiwan, Max’s father, Chung Hsing Huang started mastering the craft of bao making at New Century in the Asian Corner Mall in Charlotte. His in-demand skill set led him to the Grand Asia Market in Raleigh, then to a small bao shop inside Li Ming Global Mart in Greensboro before landing in Super G Mart in 2013. While the time-honored tradition of bun making hasn’t deviated, (it still remains a very feel-based artistry– taking into consideration temperature, moisture, and ingredients), the fillings have evolved. “The Vietnamese bun is tailored to Vietnamese people. It has some fish sauce then, of course, the Korean bun and kimchi bun are more tailored to people who like spicy food like many Koreans,” said Yen.
While at UNCC Huang contemplated nursing and envisioned a future of starting a business with a college friend. After college, he worked with his father starting at New Century grocery store and continued to learn as they transitioned to the different stores, eventually opening Honey Buns Cafe. For Yen, his life had a different trajectory. He graduated with a degree in Management Information Systems at UNCC and quickly started in the workforce as a business analyst. Tragedy struck Yen’s family in 2015, when his mother passed from ovarian cancer, and he had a bit of soul searching to do. In 2017, when Huang’s father finally decided to retire, it was a fortuitous opportunity for both Yen to return closer to his family roots and Huang to fulfill his aspirations to open a restaurant with a college friend.
Huang and Yen are delighted to see the growth of the city, seeing people discover new foods and being adventurous, but there always seems to be a little pretension. “It’s exciting to see how Charlotte is changing from when I grew up to now, and how the landscape is changing the food,” said Yen. “You got open-minded people that are trying to introduce close-minded people now. You’re always gonna be more comfortable if a friend has already tried it.”
While their signature staples are the buns, dumplings, and noodles (beef noodle soup and Beijing noodles), Honey Buns Cafe also offers banh mi sandwiches (layered with what Yen says is a distinct recipe for their pickled vegetables), as well as a unique curry banh mi. If that’s not enough to whet your palate, the real treat at Honey Buns might be their wide selection of smoothies and milk teas (both with or without boba). Everything from avocado to peach, passionfruit, and coconut, the smoothies are made on the spot from fresh produce. It’s really one of Charlotte’s best food adventures.
While Honey Buns Cafe may be fairly new to the city, having opened in 2013 and transitioned into second generation ownership in 2017, for Huang and Yen it feels like a bit of destiny. Reflecting on their journeys and the life-changing decisions their fathers made years ago, Yen is still grateful. “My dad worked so hard to give me the life that I have now. Nowadays, I just try to give back.”
Honey Buns Cafe
7323 E Independence Blvd
Charlotte, NC 28227