Written by Melody Cao
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by San Dong Noodle House, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “At ordinary restaurants, people might visit once or twice a week. At San Dong Noodle House, they can eat here three or five times a week without getting tired.”
“We wanted to open a small business from the very beginning,” Melanie Chen recalled. They had just immigrated to the United States at the time, and although they’d never owned a restaurant in the past, they did have experience working in related industries while in Taiwan. Melanie wanted to start with noodles and dumplings. “We will make fresh, high-quality, family favorites; noodle dishes in our own ways,” she’d said. Presently, San Dong Noodle House has been open for 25 years. Serving delightfully fresh and light Asian noodle dishes, the eatery has become a family favorite for many locals, indeed.
A Favored Family Restaurant
“When we took over this restaurant, it was already named ‘San Dong Noodle House,’” Melanie said. She continued with the previous menu and kept the flavors the same at first. After a while, however, she began to add her own special dishes to the menu. “We added our own specialties with some favorites from Taiwan, which are slightly different from the Northern part of China.” Melanie shared that San Dong Noodle House hopes to bring tasty, homestyle flavors to their customers along with an unintimidating menu. “As long as it’s fresh ingredients, everyone can eat healthily.”
It didn’t take long for San Dong Noodle House to earn regulars at the restaurant, and many foreign students from Taiwan would regularly visit San Dong Noodle House for to-go orders. The restaurant made noodles they were more accustomed to from Taiwan, rather than the style of noodles from the North. “Everyone’s very supportive. My freshly-made food can also be made with a lighter taste.” Melanie explained that if the food is not fresh enough, some places choose to cover it up with stronger flavors, but San Dong Noodle House guarantees the freshness of their noodles. “It’s not that heavy in taste or greasy, so many people say it tastes like it’s homemade. At ordinary restaurants, people might visit once or twice a week. At San Dong Noodle House, they can eat here three or five times a week without getting tired. With refreshing and delicious side dishes, customers can also choose a variety of dumplings, noodles, rice, and so on.”
Although San Dong Noodle House is not a dedicated vegetarian restaurant, Melanie is a dedicated vegetarian. “Being a vegetarian is spiritual and environmentally friendly. I’m very happy to be able to choose vegetarian food over animal products, so I don’t feel burdened and I feel very relaxed.” She shared that there were times when it was difficult to maintain a vegetarian diet, but she also believes that it’s definitely worth it. “For example, by caring for animals, being a vegetarian is a way to nurture compassion, to not harm life, and to allow yourself to slowly change for the better.” Melanie also has a great relationship with Tzu Chi and has devoted her time and efforts as a Tzu Chi volunteer.
Warm And Delicious Vegetarian Noodles
“Of course, our restaurant also makes vegetarian noodles. In the beginning, it was very simple dishes, like sesame and plain noodles. If customers order it, we can custom make it.” Melanie introduced her vegetarian dishes as per customer request, and also makes delicious vegetarian soups with fresh vegetables. The restaurant has also added other vegetarian dishes to the menu, like mixed vegetable dumplings stuffed with chewy tofu skin in addition to enoki and shiitake mushrooms. Not only does it smell delicious, but the taste is also wonderfully layered. Paired with cabbage and celery, the dumplings achieve a delightfully refreshing flavor. The restaurant also uses spinach juice to make their dumpling skins, giving the vegetarian dumplings an eye-catching light green coloring. “It looks healthier too.” The vegetarian dumplings can be boiled or pan-fried as potstickers.
The restaurant also launched a veggie bun packed with lots of vegetarian fillings, like fresh and tender cabbage, tofu, bamboo shoots, nutritious wood ear, and sesame seeds. Melanie emphasized that not only should the filling of the veggie bun be delicious, but the dough as well, and so it has been fermented twice to make every bite into the soft bun a memorable one. “Our veggie buns and veggie dumplings are favorites even for non-vegetarian customers. Sometimes customers get tired of the meat dishes and like to order the veggie buns and veggie dumplings.” Melanie said that the veggie buns and veggie dumplings are their most popular dishes. “All the regulars like to order them often.”
In addition to the assorted veggie dumplings and veggie buns, San Dong Noodle House also offers a selection of light vegetarian side dishes for when you’re craving something crisp and fresh, like cucumbers.
Waiting For The Right Time To Make More Vegetarian Food
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the situation in Houston became quite serious. Like many restaurants, San Dong Noodle House could only offer to-go orders to ensure the safety of employees and guests. “Although there’s a loss, everyone’s health is more important.” Melanie said their restaurant didn’t reopen until October of last year, and only for takeout orders. “We’re very careful. We really don’t want our employees and guests to get sick, so it’s difficult. We also chose to wait until the pandemic is under control before we reopen.”
The suddenness of the pandemic and the ongoing challenges it has brought forth not only impacted the once-booming business at San Dong Noodle House, but also put a hold on another plan of Melanie’s. “About a year or two ago, I was discussing with a few partners, thinking about opening a vegan restaurant,” she said, excitement shining bright in her eyes. “There are many vegetarian family restaurants in Taiwan that serve delicious and affordable combos on the menu. We are also planning to open such a restaurant. It may be to provide a simple A, B, C, D set of meals, but they are exquisite and affordable, so that everyone can try it and like them.” However, after the pandemic began, many established restaurants have been forced to close, and the thought of opening a new restaurant is far too risky.
As a direct response to the pandemic, Tzu Chi launched the Very Veggie Movement, and as a Tzu Chi volunteer, Melanie Chen was happy to participate. “Of course I want to participate!” she’d said. “Master Cheng Yen recommended it, and we will always support it.” San Dong Noodle House offers discounts for those who sign up to join the movement, promoting greater availability of healthy, veggie-focused alternatives.
Melanie is looking forward to the day she gets to reopen San Dong Noodle House’s dine-in services, and can catch up with new and old friends over a good meal. She also keeps the idea of opening a vegan restaurant firmly in mind. “We want to be a vegetarian restaurant that everyone loves; the ingredients should be like Tzu Chi’s vegetarian dishes, using fresh ingredients, no additives, and eating more healthily!”
San Dong Noodle House
9938 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!