Meet The Man Who Wants To Change The Way You Think Of Chinese Food
Hegel Hei had two major revelations that led him to start Chinah, a fast-casual restaurant that just opened a location in Lower Manhattan. The first came in college when he was eating fast food and craving the home cooking from his grandparents in Beijing. But he noticed Americans often treated Chinese food differently.
“Over here it would be something you indulge in, or something you feel guilty about,” he told the Downtown Alliance.
The second arrived when he was interning at a finance company and started tiring of the salads, burgers and wings that make up the typical office-worker lunch rotation. “It wasn’t hitting the spot,” Hei said. “It became apparent that there’s a need for a specific kind of cuisine, where there’s a healthier option for Chinese food.”
That idea led to Chinah, serving up bowls of healthy, Chinese home cooking. The first location opened in Jersey City in 2019. After a year of delays thanks to the pandemic, Chinah opened its Lower Manhattan location on March 10 at 100 Maiden Lane. The goal, Hei said, is to become the Chinese version of Sweetgreen or Chipotle. “What we wanted to do is not so much fit into the mold but to break it by serving dishes that are less familiar to mainstream diners,” said Hei, who grew up in Los Angeles and Beijing.
Those dishes include things like ma po tofu or meatballs with tomato and egg, in both chef-curated dishes and a build-your-own-bowl option. Hei also wanted the 900-square-foot space to feel more special for post-pandemic crowds.
“Pre-Covid, people didn’t really mind being herded through an assembly line,” he said. “Now, with people really needing a break from the office, we didn’t want to have that assembly line in the store. We wanted to find a comfortable and relaxed environment where the busy work gets done behind the scenes.”
Chinah is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for pickup or delivery.
photos: Sophie Fjello-Jensen