Yong Zhao and his wife, Wanting Zhang, didn’t know General Tso from Kung Pao when they were growing up in China. But during their time at Yale — where they were getting PhD.s in, environmental science and environmental law — they began to appreciate the cuisine of Chinese American takeout which was not only tasty but, according to Zhao, “the most important messenger of Chinese culture in America.”
The genesis of Nice Day, a newfangled, old-fashioned Chinese takeout that opened in Melville in May, was the couple’s dismay when they learned that this tradition was imperiled.
Many Chinese immigrants who settled here in the 1990s opened takeout restaurants. .But those moms and pops are nearing retirement age and their children, for the most part, are seeking better-paying careers that do not entail presiding over a screaming-hot wok for 10 hours a day. And so, Zhao and Zang came up with a plan that they hope will rescue Chinese takeout from extinction while providing retiring owners with a graceful exit: Their company buys out the remaining lease of an outgoing restaurant and converts it into a Nice Day.
The Melville store takes over the former Gourmet Wok, one of the town’s two remaining Chinese takeouts.
Why does the couple believe that Nice Day will flourish where its forebears have struggled? First, the menu has been streamlined; the dishes lightened up. Traditional woks have largely been replaced by rotating, nonstick electric bowls, two of which can be operated by one relatively inexperienced cook. Ordering is done on the restaurant’s website and an app is in the works.
The menu draws largely on the Chinese American repertoire: Chicken prepared a la General Tso or Kung Pao, with orange or sesame seeds; broccoli with chicken, beef or shrimp. There’s fried rice and lo mein; egg drop, hot and sour and wonton soups. Zhao, a native of Panjin in Northeast China, regards them as representative of a genuine regional Chinese cuisine — that of North America. "We just wanted to freshen them up."
Still, about a third of the fare delves more deeply into “authentic” Chinese with steamed xiao long bao (soup dumplings), dan dan noodles, bok choy with shiitake mushrooms, the “Mala Dragon Stir Fry Pot,” a dry stir fry that can be ordered Sichuan style with chili peppers and Chinese peppercorns. I can recommend the “farthest out” item on the menu: mapo mac and cheese, a subtly creamy mélange of elbow macaroni, fried tofu and shiitakes.
Most appetizers are less than $10; most mains, less than $14. Lunch specials (an entree accompanied by broccoli and rice) are all less than $14 and are served weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The store retains the basic setup of small dining area / long counter / kitchen, but it is sleek and bright. Zhao anticipated doing mostly takeout, he said, “but people seem to like dining here, eating the food fresh.”
Service is unfailingly friendly. You’ll be greeted when you enter and when you leave, someone will call, “Have a nice day!”
Nice Day Chinese is at 441 Walt Whitman Rd., Melville, 631-673-8018, eatniceday.com