Zhang Qian may be nearly 8,000 miles from her hometown of Sichuan, China, but she’s bringing a taste of home to the streets of Charlotte. For three years, she has owned and operated The Dumpling Lady, one of the city’s most popular food trucks in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Zhang, 30, is known for selling Sichuan’s specialty noodles, as well as traditional and creative dumplings. And as her loyal customers—who often wait in lines wrapping around the block—know, she brings on the spice. Edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you move to Charlotte?
My husband, John Nisbet, and I met in China in 2011, while he was studying in Chengdu. We’d been in a relationship for a few years, and he came back to America. Then he graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with his MBA, and we were like, “We have to decide whether we give up this relationship or we keep going.” In China—I think I was 27—if you don’t have a boyfriend by age 25 or 26, you’re considered a “leftover.” We got along really well, so we were like, “OK, let’s get this moving.” He got a job in Charlotte. I like the South. People are really friendly, and we got a lot of help at the beginning of the business.
Why did you get into the food truck business?
When I arrived here three years ago, it was difficult for me to find food I really liked. In my hometown, I grew up eating very spicy food, and here in Charlotte, I find that the flavor is a little bit plain, so I started to cook for myself a lot. We would invite John’s friends to come over and I started to make dumplings. They really liked it and would want to buy it from me. I didn’t have the money to open a real restaurant, but I liked the concept of food trucks. We don’t have them in China. So I was like, “Why not just start a food truck? Then I can pretty much eat my food any time I want.”
How did you come up with your business name?
We started selling the dumplings in a farmers market and would trade a little with other vendors. One day, we were like, “We don’t know each others’ names. But we know them by the product that they sell—the Fish Guy or the Cheese Lady.” So we were like, “Why not call ourselves ‘The Dumpling Lady?’”
Where do you often serve your food during the week?
Our type of food is very spicy, so we have to go to the places where there are a lot of young people who are more open to this food. I tend to go to South End, Plaza Midwood, and NoDa.
What’s your favorite dish?
I like noodles. I have a new one, the Yi Bin Ran Mian, which is wheat noodles coated with spicy chili oil, topped with fresh bird’s eye chili pepper, ground beef, peanuts, (preserved) mustard, scallion, and sesame seeds. It is the spiciest on my menu. I studied it when I went back to China, went to culinary school, took a course for three weeks, and then interned at a restaurant. I love it, and my husband loves it.
Photos by Justin Driscoll