Americans have a history of appropriating other cultures' cuisines and making them our own (see flavored hummus and breakfast burritos). Wen Lee and her husband, Chung Huang, are prime examples. This past spring, the couple opened a second location for their counter shop, Honey Buns, inside the Super G Mart, an international grocery store on East Independence Boulevard (the first one launched in Durham). Here, you can find bao — white, fluffy buns native to China — that range from sweet to savory to suit the tastes of the couple's Korean and Vietnamese customers. But don't expect any buns sweetened with honey. When asked why they chose the name Honey Buns, Lee coyly replies, "Well, my husband's the cook, so my honey makes the buns!"
Creative Loafing: Honey Buns takes after a shop your father opened in Taiwan. Have there been any changes to his business model with the new stores?
Wen Lee: We've had to make some changes. For example, the flour we use is different, since Americans prefer the skin of the bun to be sweet, which is not as common in Taiwan. Many of our ingredients, especially our vegetables, we get locally. Our flour, however, has to be shipped in from New York. We also had some issues with our steamer — the Health Department didn't want to approve the bamboo steamer. They wanted us to only use a stainless steel one, but that tends to leave the buns soggier. They finally approved it, but not without a fight.
Since your store is located in a market that draws people of all backgrounds, how do you help customers who might not be familiar with bao choose what to order?
There have been some patterns. Since so many of our customers are Vietnamese and Korean, we prepare what they prefer. When my husband came to Charlotte, he worked with Koreans and Vietnamese to learn how to cook in their styles. Korean customers tend to prefer vegetarian filings, while the Vietnamese seem to like meat more. People are generally willing to try new things, but some recipes haven't translated here. My father used to make a bun in Taiwan that is my favorite: a steamed plain bun that is then fried so that it's hard on the outside and soft on the inside. It's popular in Taiwan but not here, although customers can special order them.
Since your husband handles the kitchen duties, what's your main role in the shop?
I work with customers a lot. I love it when we're busy, and I can talk to so many different people. I'm a bubbly person. Once, both me and my daughter took a quiz online to see what our real ages were. My daughter scored as being in her forties and I was told I was 18 years old. I guess it makes sense.