Leading Ladies: Meet five driven women reshaping San Antonio’s food scene

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click to enlarge JOSH HUSKIN
Josh Huskin
Unbridled Hospitality: Restauranteur Kristina Zhao’s focus on service highlights Sichuan cuisine

Born in the mountainous Chinese province of Guizhou, Kristina Zhao is no stranger to bold flavors and long-observed traditions.

Her San Antonio restaurants, longtime favorite Sichuan House and the four-month-old Dashi Sichuan Kitchen + Bar, specialize in cuisine inspired by the traditional, and often fiery, food of her home province.

Zhao and her team make liberal use of mala — a dried chili pepper concoction prominent in Sichuan cuisine that induces a tingling, then numbing, sensation on the tongue — and introduced many SA residents to xiaochi, or the province’s famous “little eats.”

But the exceptional food isn’t the only intriguing thing about Zhao’s eateries.
What elevates the experience is the way the dishes are served. Dining at either of Zhao’s restaurants is a study in unbridled hospitality. A quiet reverence for her cuisine’s homeland permeates the dining room. It seems to course through the veins of every staff member.

“We really try to look for people who are genuinely interested in food and providing a cohesive experience,” she said. “Like a lot of other restaurants, our new hires will typically be great for the first couple of weeks, and then the ones that don’t necessarily fit weed themselves out. We’re so fortunate to have been left with a team of people that works well together, who wants to work together, and is enthusiastic about coming to work to play, essentially.”

In other words, Zhao’s staff is friendly, knowledgeable and eager to provide an unmatched experience. Transparency is vital to achieving that mix, she explained.

“With me, what you see is what you get, sometimes I even need to bite my tongue, but I really try to be open with people, because I believe it allows us to build that relationship,” Zhao said. “With every new relationship, that’s time and energy we’re both using. … Everybody goes through shit, it all stinks. I always tell my team that if something is going on that affects their time [at the restaurant], they can tell me so I can help them figure it out.”

A month after Dashi’s opening, the restaurant experienced a shaky weekend. Customers complained to managers and one-star reviews showed up online. Zhao quickly acknowledged the issues on social media, candidly noting that service that weekend wasn’t up to the standards set for Dashi guests.

Followers lauded the action as “brave” and impressive. But for Zhao, publicly acknowledging the complaints was the only logical thing to do.

“I think we have the best guests, the most diverse clientele in the city, and a lot of that following started at Sichuan House,” she said. “It only made sense to own up to the fact that the service didn’t match up to what we strive to provide, either. All we can do is be honest about the intent. When the intent is pure, everything else follows suit.”

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