If you’ve got little ones at home, you probably know Hei Hei is the comical chicken in Disney’s animated feature film, Moana. If you’ve got a hungry family, you should know Hei Hei is Lake Highlands for “delicious Chinese food.”
Hei Hei has been open in Lakeridge since November, but the surge of COVID’s omicron variant has meant half of their customers have been ordering delivery or take-out meals. Owners Sam Howard and Brandon Carter, who also created Cedar and Vine across the street, are looking to welcome more dine-in patrons at Hei Hei. The duo and their wives, Jessica and Ashlee, all graduated from Lake Highlands High School together in 2002. They now have a passel of kids and are working to make Hei Hei as family-friendly as some of the spots they frequented growing up in the neighborhood.
“We spent lots of time laughing with family and friends at places like Joe Willy’s and Olympic Pizza,” recalls Howard. “You just loved going because they had that vibe. It’s a nostalgia thing.”
Hei Hei is offering free soft serve cones for kiddos (adults can order a fortune cookie sundae), and they’re creating an old school arcade in the back room.
“We wanted to create a fun and comfortable place where people would want to hang out,” says Howard. “We’ve got a full bar and TVs so people can come watch a game, but you get a totally different experience from dining at Cedar & Vine.”
Cedar & Vine opened four years ago – part bistro, part date night destination, part corner pub.
“When we created Cedar & Vine, versatility was the key,” says Carter. “We’ve got a kid’s play area on the patio plus a bar with high-end liquors so we can function as a bar later at night. It’s a place to come in and have a nice salmon or salad and meet up with friends. We wanted people of all ages to enjoy the concept. That’s why we called it ‘Community Kitchen + Cocktails’ – it’s a place where people can run into each other.”
When the pandemic first hit, the business of gathering evaporated overnight. Hei Hei is a bookend, with take-home friendly dishes and something different on the menu.
“We started asking family and friends and got a positive response to Chinese food,” says Carter. “We’re putting our unique spin on Chinese American cuisine, recreating dishes people are familiar with.”
“When Chinese immigrants came here in the 1800s, they were forced to make do with American ingredients,” explains Howard. “That’s really how Chinese American cuisine was born. Chinese immigrants were limited in what businesses they could own, and many opened restaurants. They tailored their dishes to American palates, and we are honoring that history and that cuisine.”
At Hei Hei, sauces are all made from scratch, meat is butchered each day and veggies are chopped by hand to keep things fresh.
“It’s not a cookie cutter experience,” says Howard. “There are more than 40,000 Chinese food restaurants in this country – many in small towns. We’re just looking for our version of that. To us, that means making it with a little less sugar, lighter ingredients and a snappier, crunchier vibe.”
The guys are still playing with the menu – constantly making improvements and adding new options.
“At Cedar & Vine we started with a really small menu,” says Carter. “We saw what worked and grew it over time. It’s the same here. We want to start a rotation and see what people like.”
You’ll find the full menu here.
Howard grew up on Robin Hill, not far from Lakeridge, but Carter’s family lived on Seagrove near Forest Meadow Junior High. He knows it can take some coaxing to draw neighbors east of Skillman. The team is hoping those folks will add Hei Hei – and all the great spots at Audelia and Walnut Hill – to their rotation.
“It all started with Resident Taqueria, and Andrew (Savoie) doesn’t get enough credit for that,” says Carter. “He took a huge risk opening before there were really restaurants on this corner. He earned a lot of critical recognition, and it brought a lot of people from outside Lake Highlands, and people realized it could be a successful corner. Then Shady’s opened, and that caught on like wildfire and a lightbulb went on in our heads.”
The center is almost full now with a variety of retail, restaurants and services. When the weather is nice, families fill outdoor patios and the center’s pocket park. The duo is hopeful that a strong tenant will soon sign on to demolish and rebuild the relocated Chase Bank, built decades ago as a Dairy Queen.
“It’s a kind of ‘coopetition’ – more restaurants here created competition, but it’s a cooperative effort,” explains Carter. “It creates a critical mass for people to come dine on this corner. If you don’t have enough choices, people are not going to come.”
“There are enough people to go around,” agrees Howard. “Come here one night, go there one night. It’s great for everybody.”
Hei Hei is at 9660 Audelia, suite 117, in the former Atomic Pie space. They have a dedicated take-out area inside and two take-out parking spaces outside. During the current labor shortages, they’re open from 4-9 p.m. daily but hope to resume lunch service soon. You may order online here.