Photo by Stephanie Breijo
The Lapple Lemon Chicken with lemongrass, cilantro and pickled pepper
A five-months-pregnant Apple Gao checks on customers, gently placing her hand on a diner's arm.
"You like the flavor?" "How is the flavor?"
She asks it excitedly at each stop as she fills up water at one table and takes an order for an extra round of crispy house-made pork dumplings at another. There aren't many guests yet, but Gao is optimistic and it's infectious. She's still in her first week of business at Lapple, the authentic Chinese restaurant that opened last Saturday, serving guests or passing out flyers at her restaurant in the old Panda Garden space at the corner of West Grace and North Harrison streets.
Her husband, Adrian Liu, is in the kitchen preparing their so-fresh-it-hurts Lapple Lemon Chicken salad, and frying up pork dumplings encased in dough made with yolk for extra crunch. The finished product makes clear his skill, though you'd never guess he spent two years as Peter Chang's sous chef in Short Pump, and additional years as his sous and assistant executive chef in Virginia Beach; this menu, these flavors, are entirely other than Sichuan-inspired.
"We're representing all the southwest Chinese provinces," says Gao, the former general manager of Peter Chang's Charlottesville and Virginia Beach locations. "I am from Yunnan province, and this province has a very diversified culture because in all of China, we have 56 minority groupings total and in Yunnan province we have 52. What you are eating is very ethnic food."
The lemon chicken salad, for instance, is a classic Dai recipe, and Lapple's wide selection of hot pots pays homage to the border between Laos and Cambodia — both regions known for the food. "They love curry a lot," Gao says. "That's why I tried to bring curry to the restaurant here." (Gao isn't kidding; she recently stashed yellow curry in her suitcase before leaving Thailand, specifically to offer authentic curry in the restaurant.)
"When we were traveling around Richmond, the only real Chinese food I'd see was Peter Chang's. Along the VCU area, all I'd see is delivery Chinese food or Panda Express, and to a real Chinese person, that is not Chinese food. So we brought real Chinese food over here with fresh ingredients and high quality of meat and more options for the local people, to let them have a new impression of what is real Chinese food. VCU is such a great place; it saved one part of Richmond! They deserve to have good food."
Lapple is located at 948 W. Grace St. and is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Tuesdays, when it closes early at various times. Get 20 percent off your order tonight, May 8, until closing.