This time Peter Sam wanted to move.
That wasn’t the case in June 2005, when his father, Kit, moved his family from Los Angeles to the small Nebraska town of Gothenburg to open a Chinese restaurant.
“Nobody wanted to go there except my dad,” Sam said.
But the family grew to love Nebraska, finding success with its restaurant, the China Cafe.
Now, it’s time to expand.
“We just wanted to do more,” Sam said about the family's opening the new Shen Cafe in Lincoln. “In a small town, you’re limited with what you can do. So about three or four years ago we started looking.”
The Sams didn’t have much capital, Sam said, to build from the ground up or to renovate, so they focused on places that once were restaurants — such as the location they found in Williamsburg Village at 35th Street and Old Cheney Road, where Wind Chimes used to be.
“We always liked the neighborhood, but Wind Chimes already was there,” he said. “Then our (real estate) agent called and told us they closed down.”
On May 16, the Sams opened Shen Cafe, a new Chinese restaurant using a fast-casual concept made popular by such places as Chipotle and Sultan’s Kite.
At Shen, diners choose their main ingredient -- chicken breast, organic tofu, shrimp, steak or veggies -- their sauce and their rice (white, fried or brown) to create an entree. For $2 more, diners can add a choice of two appetizers (egg roll, crab Rangoon, soup or teriyaki chicken sticks).
“I really like Chipotle,” Sam said. “We think it’s a great concept. We wanted to do something different than the other Chinese restaurants in town.”
Peter’s father, Kit, has worked in Chinese restaurants since he was a teenager. The 12 sauces featured on Shen Cafe’s menu are his and his alone.
“He has them all in his head,” Sam said. “We need to have him write them down.”
The sauces are the draw here, ranging from customer favorite Orange Glaze -- perfect with chicken -- to the Shen Mix, a rich brown house sauce filled with veggies (my personal favorite). Kit Sam can add heat to each one upon request.
Diners can order small- ($5.95 to $7.50) or regular-sized ($6.95 to $8.50) entrees. Bowls, which feature a lo mein or fried rice mix with the main ingredient, range from $6.50 to $7.95.
Most customers, as we did, order appetizers, with nothing out of the ordinary to go on about. Grade: B
Sam admitted former Wind Chimes customers, especially older ones, have had some trouble adjusting to the fast casual concept.
“They get flustered a little bit,” he said.
It was even a bit overwhelming for this 48-year-old, who was expecting a full-service restaurant or a type of menu found at most other Lincoln Chinese restaurants. This will take some getting used to for many patrons.
Thankfully, the young woman working the counter was patient with my wife, her parents and me. She led us through the process of how to order and was quick with recommendations. The to-go menu also is quite helpful, with meat recommendations for each sauce.
My advice is to check out Shen’s website -- shencafe.com -- in advance to read up on the 12 sauces available. It will expedite your time at the counter.
Condiments, such as soy, sweet and sour, and mustard sauces, are found at a station in the dining room. For convenience, I would have put the sauces -- at least the soy sauces -- on tables, as well as napkin containers. Grade: C+
Gone is the formalness of Wind Chimes, now replaced by a look and decor to reflect Shen’s fast-casual concept. The large dining room is filled with high-backed booths, and tables and chairs, with a red-and-brown color scheme. Canvas photographs are trendy now. A bunch of them -- featuring sights in China -- fill the wall. Shen also has a small lounge area for patrons to sip Thai tea and take advantage of free Wi-Fi. Grade: B
Each one of Kit Sam’s sauces can be made with tofu or veggies as the main ingredient. Peter Sam recommends -- as do I -- the Shen Mix, which features the house sauce with snow peas, broccoli, carrots, napa cabbage and mushrooms.
The Szechuan Bold also is worth mentioning for those who like spicy. The garlic marinade contains celery, snow peas, mushrooms, carrots and green bell peppers.
Oddly, none of the appetizers are vegetarian. The soups are made with chicken broth and there are no veggie egg rolls. Grade: A-