Opening a business is a challenge, but opening a restaurant in Houston is a whole other trial – a testing trial that Mary Li of Ginger and Fork restaurant was ready for.
Just next week, on Thursday, March 2 Mary Li and her staff at Ginger and Fork restaurant – a Cantonese and Hong Kong inspired restaurant and bar – will be celebrating their one year anniversary. The milestone anniversary is anything but lost on Li.
“In a year’s time, we’ve learned so many things,” Li said. “But our goal for this restaurant was for this building to reconnect old friends, and connect new ones. And we’ve done that. We have new regulars that have become our friends, our family. And I get to reconnect with old friends here every day.”
Opening Ginger and Fork wasn’t an idea that sparked a year ago, rather a formulated plan of years’ worth of work in the industry and a little encouragement through that time span.
For 24 years, Mary Li was the face of Tony Mandola’s bar program. Her general manager at Ginger and Fork, Donnie Roy, was behind the scenes for Tony’s, managing finances, company structure and their staff. Over a couple of decades, Li and Roy perfected a friendship and perfected their craft.
“After all that time at Tony Mandola’s, the restaurant had changed a lot,” Li said. “I had made so many friends with my time there, and so many of them encouraged me to branch out and open my own concept. So I began thinking about what’s inside the loop and what we don’t have.”
Thinking of what’s inside the loop, Li named off a few: steak houses, Italian, Mexican. The cuisine missing from that inside-the-loop list was what Li was raised on: Cantonese, Hong Kong inspired fare.
“When you think of Chinese food, you don’t think of a dining experience,” Li said.
“I wanted to bring the cuisine that I so dearly love, the tradition I was raised on, and add in the dining and service element. When you go out to eat for Chinese food, you usually go to eat and then just leave. With all my years behind the bar, I wanted to add a strong cocktail program so when you come here you can have that full dining experience.”
On the menu
Cutting corners and doing things halfheartedly isn’t the way of Ginger and Fork, a quality trait Roy said can almost be to a fault.
The main menu is separated in categories: small eats, main eats – sea, land, earth – soups, grains and noodles. A lunch and brunch menu is also available, as well as a few off the menu items you should know about.
A traditional “off the menu” item that Li said she’s passionate about is the Xiaolongbao, or “soup dumplings.”
“We want to offer something that we enjoy, something that we’re proud of,” Roy said. “So the soup dumplings were a challenge. We wanted them to be authentic, and we figured out a way to make that happen.”
Polling the bar at Ginger and Fork, the wings, lobster tails, and fresh tomato beef rice plate were a few customer favorites. On the soup menu, many pointed out the Ching Po Leung, a bone broth soup that has immense health benefits – one that everyone mentioned to order when you feel a cold coming on or during one.
“Everything on the menu, we recommend ordering family style,” Li said. “Order a few things for the table, and try a little bit of everything.”
Behind the bar
There are three things that make a successful bar program, according to Ginger and Fork’s bartender, Jeremy Olivier, and that’s the will from the ownership, having someone to do the preparation work, and then when it comes to delivery time, the staff has to be able to follow through.
“Without those three things and without passion, a bar program won’t succeed,” Olivier said. “Mary and Marc have that.” From the cocktail menu, there are 12 cocktails listed, along with a full bar and cultured wine program. If you ask Li which is her favorite cocktail, she said she can’t pick just one, but can recommend a top three: the Panama Daiquiri, the Ginger Margarita, and the Pistachio Sour. If you ask Roy, his immediate response is the whiskey cocktail, being a whiskey lover. And if you ask Olivier, he’s got only one in mind.
“The best kind of cocktail should stimulate all five senses,” Olivier said. “It should be beautiful to look at, it should smell great, it should taste good, it should hold well in your hand, and the name should be pleasing. All five senses should be stimulated, and the panama daiquiri easily does that.”
Service is key
Walk into Ginger and Fork on any given day, and it’s more than likely that you’ll get a greeting from Li or Roy, and that is something both say they try to make a standard.
“We try not to look at customers as our customers or clientele, and for me, and all my years of background, it’s always been ‘treat people the way you want to be treated,’” Roy said. “Everybody likes to be recognized, everybody likes to be considered. I may not always remember names, I often do, but I will always remember a face. Little things like that are important to us.”
Out of all of the restaurant’s successes, this year, there’s one that Li and Roy both agree on that they are most proud of: breaking the communication barrier with the kitchen. The kitchen speaks full Chinese, and upon first opening zero english. Today, the staff has mastered their system, are proud of their work put in, and asking themselves – what’s next?
Ginger and Fork will be celebrating their anniversary the whole month of March, but will also have a big celebratory party on Saturday, March 4. Stop in and see them at 4705 Inker St. and call for your reservation (713) 861-8883.