As you might imagine, we field a decent number of inquiries every month from restaurant owners or managers inviting us to come try their food. Sometimes, they come rapid fire. It may take a minute for us to get back to you, but we always respond. What we don’t do is accept every invitation we get. It’s impossible. It would take up more than half of my time—time I just don’t have to spare these days.
One such inquiry got my attention last month. It was from David Chen, owner of E -Tang, a popular Chinese restaurant in Savannah, inviting me to his somewhat new location on Hilton Head Island. Multiple messages from a few different directions made me wonder, why the sense of urgency?
The Savannah location is widely known as the best Chinese food in town. It’s been at the intersection of Oglethorpe and Price Streets in downtown Savannah for a couple of years now.
Mr. Chen had been convinced by a friend who owns a Vietnamese restaurant next door in Savannah to give his food a shot here, simply because the options were limited. The gamble paid off. E -Tang Savannah is very popular with locals, to include students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, many of whom call China home.
My curiosity was piqued, frankly, because I also love E- Tang’s food. I already know how good it is, and so does the rest of Savannah.
I picked a day when I had other business on your side of the Savannah River and set the meeting for an early dinner. It didn’t take long to figure out why we were there. Mr. Chen was clearly flummoxed. This was his first time opening a restaurant in an area like Hilton Head Island. He’s been far more accustomed to areas with foot traffic. He spent the summer seeing the island bursting at the seams with people and waiting for that to translate to more business at E-Tang. It never did. The restaurant did okay, sure, but it wasn’t what he expected out of the gate.
“I see the parking lot across the way full of cars every night, but no one knows we are here,” he said in frustration.
I found myself lending a sympathetic ear for one simple reason: The food he was bringing out in waves was nothing short of exceptional. We started with Chili Oil Wontons, Dan Dan Noodles, Cucumber Salad and Soup Dumplings—the latter made in house every morning and absolutely the best in the area.
The next wave featured Egg Drop Soup, Bao Buns filled with BBQ pork, and Shrimp and Pork Shumai.
For roughly two hours, we sat with Mr. Chen as he poured the sake. We learned his background, why he chose this area and what his plans are going forward.
It turns out David had been visiting his family in China roughly twice a year. That ended a few years ago when travel restrictions made it nearly impossible to visit anyone, including his wife, in China. We all know the reasons why.
“I haven’t been back in five years,” he said “They make you stay in your hotel for 14 or 21 days. I cannot do that with my business.”
So, he’s here building a business now with two locations and a third in Pooler, Georgia on the way next year. He knows social media is critical to help getting the word out, but he will be the first to tell you he is relatively clueless when it comes to the nuances of getting the most out of the medium. Not to mention, he’s learned enough to know that the best way to get people through the door is word of mouth, especially on an island like Hilton Head where you have a base of locals, yes, but a lot of the population is a seasonal moving target throughout the year. He has yet to figure out what it all looks like and how it will translate to the growth of his business.
More food? Yes, of course there was. My favorite dish of the night was a spicy beef stir fry, featuring thinly sliced jalapeños, celery and green onions. Absolutely delicious, as was the Eggplant and Green Beans—a popular dish on the island because it isn’t too hot, Chen said. There was also a chicken dish featuring thinly sliced chicken breast, very thinly sliced potatoes, and broccoli all stirred up in a chili oil glaze.
All of this was delicious. The vegetables had a snap when they were supposed to; the flavors were blended beautifully. There were no heavy, salty brown sauces drowning everything on a plate. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
The flavors were light, bright and fabulous. I can’t say enough good things about this dinner. Oh yeah, then Mr. Chen brought out a whole fish, scored and fried and bathed in a fantastic garlic brown sauce. Yes, there was a lot of food. Yes, there were some doggy bags. Yes, we ate it and liked it.
By the way, I buried the lede. You should know that Szechwan food is my thing. When I travel to New York to visit my daughter, I’m regularly chasing some down all over town. I’ve been known to eat it three times in four days before returning to Savannah. I love this stuff—Americanized variations perhaps, but the bold flavors, the fragrance and sometimes the heat is something I cannot get enough of, and this at E-Tang is absolutely it.
By the end of our meal, I realized this was a great restaurant that just needed someone to put the word out and get more people to try it. On my way home, I decided to share this time with you.
E-Tang is offering some solid eats on Hilton Head Island. If you don’t know about them but love some Chinese take-out, give them a try. You will Eat It and Like It.