This is the story of Great Wall, and also the story of Sunny. Sunny is Great Wall’s owner, and she has been the face of the restaurant for decades. If you have ever been to Great Wall, you have probably been greeted by her always-cheerful personality and warm smile as she takes you to your table. Last week, in between calls for take-out orders and teaching her American customers Chinese one word at a time, Mr Foodie and I had the opportunity to talk to Sunny about her passion for bringing “high-class,” “authentic” Chinese food to Birmingham.
History of Great Wall
Great Wall is a Birmingham institution. One of my neighbors tells me he ate there with his girlfriend in high school, which I’m guessing was 30 years ago (hope I’m right!). In 1994, Sunny entered the story. She moved from China to Tuscaloosa, and shortly thereafter Birmingham, with her then-husband. At the time, the restaurant was owned by a Chinese gentleman named Jimmy, who hired Sunny to be his cashier. Great Wall was one of a handful of “old-style” Chinese restaurants in town, including Golden City, Mandarin House, and Formosa. All of these restaurants served typical Chinese-American fare like Mongolian Beef, Egg Foo Young, and Sesame Chicken, and emphasized a sit-down, fine dining experience. However, from the beginning, Great Wall separated itself from the others based on its quality. Great Wall always ordered the very best ingredients, like all white meat chicken and the best cuts of beef, and had large portions. To this day, many of Great Wall’s customers from this period are still regulars.
When Jimmy passed away, Tom Henson, his accountant and also the husband of Ms. Alabama 1972, took over the business. Sunny describes Tom as an excellent businessman. Although business had always been good, Tom began to market the restaurant in print and on television. Business boomed for many years, and the restaurant moved from its original location in what is now Starz Karaoke Lounge, to a larger space just next door.
During that time, Tom trusted Sunny to run the day to day operations of Great Wall. Officially, she was still the cashier, but in reality, she had become the face of the restaurant. During that time, Sunny learned more and more about cooking. She would taste the food and give the chefs feedback on whether to add more spices, or to cook it for longer.
As we spoke to Sunny, it became obvious to us that her interest in food is more than just a necessity of her job; it is her passion. To really understand Sunny’s passion for food, one has to go back to her childhood in Shangai.
From Shanghai to Birmingham
Sunny grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a period of great upheaval and food insecurity. Despite being from a well-off family –her mother was a doctor and her father was a policeman – they were not allowed to have any help in the home. Sunny’s mother and grandmother did all of the cooking. Her grandmother was a particularly outstanding cook who could even roll dumplings with both hands at the same time.
Although she never learned how to cook, Sunny emphatically states that “I know how to eat!” Growing up, food was an extremely important part of her family’s life. Even with the restrictions imposed by the Chinese government and the lean times, every Saturday night, Sunny’s family would gather for a big meal. This was her father’s way to “keep the family together.” These meals became Sunny’s reference point for what a good Chinese meal should be.
In Shanghai, Sunny worked in sales for an office supply company. When she moved to the US with her then-husband, she barely spoke English. Without internet, she couldn’t watch Chinese TV or movies. So she learned English by watching American TV. She describes initially living in Tuscaloosa, which at the time had no Chinese grocery store and no authentic Chinese restaurants. When she moved to Birmingham, she took the job as cashier at Great Wall.
Cashier becomes Owner
Fast forward to 2010, when Tom Henson decided to retire. After being the face of Great Wall for so many years, Tom asked Sunny if she wanted to buy the restaurant. Although she had reservations at first, Tom assured her that he would stay involved. With Sunny as the owner, things stayed the same – she continued to work the front of the restaurant and kept the menu as it was.
December 15, 2012. After a long day at work, Sunny returned home just after midnight. She started receiving calls from friends that Great Wall was on fire. At first, she didn’t believe it. She drove back to the restaurant and found the front door had been kicked down by the fire department. Things seemed fine, and she wondered what all the fuss was about, until she entered the kitchen. What had started as a small refrigerator fire had caused substantial smoke damage in the kitchen, and she realized, the rest of the restaurant.
Shaking, Sunny went home. Soon, she realized she had a choice to make. She could take the insurance money and leave the restaurant business, or she could rebuild. She thought about her business, and what made great wall unique from other Chinese restaurants in town. Great Wall was the only remaining “old-style” restaurant. All of the other Chinese restaurants were buffets, or smaller, quick in quick out restaurants without a focus on fine dining. She went home to Shanghai, and sought advice from her family and inspiration from the city where her passion for food originated. Her brother and sister introduced her to a chef from Shanghai living in Atlanta, Mr. Kong. She invited him and his wife to her house, and they spent a weekend eating at all the Chinese restaurants in town. Together, they realized that they had a tremendous opportunity to fill an important niche in the Birmingham food scene.
Great Wall re-opened in December, 2013. Physically, Sunny rebuilt it to look as it had before – decorated in red with traditional accents. Thankfully, the antiques, including antique carvings on the walls, survived the fire. They added new improvements, such as newer, more elegant tables for large parties and two televisions. The large, upscale restaurant space means she can host weddings (she has one Chinese wedding coming up, she told us) and other large parties.
The menu, however, was dramatically different. She laughs as she recalls what happened when they printed it. Also a Shanghai native, the printer asked her, “sister, are you from Shanghai?” Sunny and Mr. Kong had removed all of the American dishes and instead focused on traditional, authentic Shanghai cuisine. The menu was the food Sunny (and apparently the printer) ate as a child, using Mr. Kong’s recipes.
Great Wall’s regulars came back in droves, looking for their old favorites. Sunny recalls, “A lot of people said, ‘you don’t have Schezuan chicken?’” Other Chinese-American favorites from Great Wall included Mongolian beef, egg foo young, and sesame chicken. She would always cook these on request.
After two months of doing this, she made a decision. She put all of the old Chinese-American favorites back on the menu. Her Chinese customers told her not to bother keeping the authentic dishes on the general menu, but rather, to have the much discussed but rarely seen “secret menu” for her Chinese customers. Sunny emphatically told us, “This is not fair! American people, they like Chinese [food] too! They pay the money, they come here, they walk in this door, they need to enjoy good food too. Why would you give them a different [menu]?” And so she created the current menu, which is a hybrid of Chinese-American and authentic Shanghai dishes.
Sunny recognized that some of her American clientele might still be reluctant to try the more authentic dishes without some help. “They don’t know what is what. Like black pepper beef,” which is now one of her most popular dishes. To address this issue, she has added photographs of the authentic dishes throughout the menu to allow her customers to “get ideas” about new things to try
Over these last 8 months since the re-opening, she has grown her American, Chinese-American, and Chinese customer base. She has also seen her American customers gravitating towards some of her favorite authentic childhood dishes – black pepper beef, chicken and eggplant in hot pot, pork meatballs, and steamed buns. Sometimes, it’s the even more exotic dishes – “American people ordering beef tendon and tripe!” she exclaims with a huge smile. For Sunny, introducing Birminghamsters to her food is a huge source of pride.
Sunny’s goal is to build her business providing “high class,” “authentic” Chinese food to American, Chinese-American, and Chinese customers alike. Any day of the week, you can have lunch or dinner at Great Wall and watch her in action. She is there from morning till night, tasting the food that comes out of the kitchen, comparing it to her grandmother’s gold standard.
At our last visit, we watched Sunny go from table to table checking on peoples’ meals. When people order mostly Chinese-American food, her background as a saleswoman and her know-how as a businesswoman kicks in as she gently points to the delicious-looking pictures on the menu. She does it all with her trademark cheerful smile. Like her food, Sunny is about as authentic as they come.