Owners of Setauket’s Kai Li Kitchen thrive on shared goals, optimism and hard work
By Mallie Kim
Xin Tian Huang came to Long Island with a couple changes of clothes and a clear goal: to learn English and send money back home to his family in Fujian, a province in southeastern China. Huang, now co-owner with his wife Zhi Dan Huang of Kai Li Kitchen in East Setauket, was 18 in 1981 when he landed at John F. Kennedy Airport on an early, frozen January morning. He was shocked and delighted to experience knee-deep snow for the first time, and another discovery soon followed: American soda. “The first day, I drank Coca Cola — ‘What is that?’” he remembered thinking. At the time he’d never even seen Coke advertised in China. “It surprised me,” he said.
This sense of adventure and enthusiasm would serve Huang well over the next four decades as he and Zhi Dan worked hard toward the classic American Dream: support family back home, provide a better life for the next generation and find success along the way.
China and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1979, opening the door for families like Huang’s to send their children to the United States to study and work. So in New York, Huang trekked from his uncle’s home in Hauppauge to the language school at Hunter College in Manhattan several days a week, leveraging the long train ride to practice English while making friends with other commuters. He spent the rest of his time working in his uncle’s restaurant Hau Po, all while sending money back to his family’s farming village.
In 1990, as he began preparing to open Kai Li Kitchen, Huang took a trip back to China, where his cousin introduced him to a classmate at a party, a young woman named Zhi Dan. The two dated briefly, saw their values aligned, and married within three months. We were “just attracted, and 1, 2, 3!” he said. “Marry first, and then talk later!”
After three years of letters and once-a-month international phone calls, Zhi Dan was finally able to immigrate to Long Island and join him at the new Kai Li Kitchen. Huang said he chose the name because Kai Li is easy to remember, and the Chinese characters translate to “triumphant victory forever,” an auspicious motto for starting a new life with his new wife.
Huang called himself Steve and his wife Gina, to simplify communication with customers, and the newly christened Gina was just as goal oriented as her husband. She made time to learn some English with a volunteer tutor at Emma S. Clark Memorial Library but otherwise spent the years juggling the restaurant and motherhood. “I worked 30 years. I made wontons — 30 years,” she said. “We had six years with no days off.”
Their children Jason and Amy, now 31 and 24, simply came along for the ride, sleeping under the counter during the 5 p.m. rush or standing on small chairs to help take orders once they were tall enough. “It was very, very difficult when we came here,” she said, pointing to the large age gap between Jason and Amy. “That’s why we had seven years with no children, because [it was a] difficult life.”
They pressed on, determined to accomplish their goals, falling in love not only with each other but also their North Shore community.
Regular customers knew the children and watched them grow. Jason would ride a small bike around the restaurant lobby or sit and draw with a stubby pencil. One day, a customer brought in a full box of colored pencils for him. It meant the world to Zhi Dan. “My son right now still saves this box because he says, ‘This is my first gift,’” Zhi Dan said, adding that to this day, she brings up this story whenever that customer drops by for a meal.
By the late 90s, the U.S. economy was riding high, and people ate out more. Kai Li Kitchen started to thrive. The Huangs, by then American citizens, were able to pay off the money they’d borrowed to start the restaurant. Eventually, Jason and Amy earned degrees and started successful careers — Jason as a financial advisor, and Amy as a software engineer at HBO Max. For the Haungs, it meant their hard work had paid off. “This is my goal — this is my dream,” Zhi Dan said. “My husband and I didn’t go to college.”
Zhi Dan loves that her children have integrated so well into American culture, she said, partly because of the discrimination she felt upon moving to the United States — of people seeing her “with different eyes.” She doesn’t want that for them. Though the kids know Chinese celebrations, food and traditions well, she said, “they have American friends; they know American history. They know American culture.”
Other dreams have also come true, thanks to the Huangs’ hard work at Kai Li Kitchen: They paid off their home loan, and they helped other relatives immigrate to the United States as well. The Huangs also made a point to give back to the community they’ve grown to love. Over the years, they said, they have donated food to community events and the fire department, raised money for St. Jude’s Children’s cancer center and even supported a Chinese cultural festival at Emma Clark library — the same place a volunteer tutored Zhi Dan years before.
Zhi Dan said she no longer feels seen “with different eyes” and credits the Setauket community with that. “I know location is very important,” she said, highlighting the school district and the kindness of neighbors and customers as a few of the area’s assets. “That’s why we’re here 30 years. This location is so good.”
Huang says there is much less snow during Long Island winters these days, but still plenty of Coca Cola — they sell cans of it in their restaurant. And it’s obvious the optimism has remained as well. After more than 30 years cooking sesame chicken, pork fried rice and wonton soup in Setauket, he shares nothing but love for his community. “The thing is, we love this town,” he said with his characteristic enthusiasm. “I tell everybody: This is my home town!”
The hard work doesn’t stop now that the Huangs have achieved their original goals. Now they have new targets in mind: Someday Zhi Dan would like to take more English classes and study real estate, and Huang dreams of driving an RV all the way to California, to see more of this country they are so proud to call home.
And if the past is any indicator, these dreams are just around the corner. “If you have a goal, keep going,” Zhi Dan said. “It can come true.”
Kai Li Kitchen is located at 207 Main St. in East Setauket.