The story behind the Gu family’s Buford Highway comeback

Just when it seemed their culinary influence was waning, the Sichuan pros expanded their reach

Husband and wife Yiquan Gu and Qiongyao Zhang
Husband and wife Yiquan Gu and Qiongyao Zhang in the kitchen

Photograph by Ben Rollins

First, there was Gu’s Bistro, which opened in December 2010 in a thinly populated Buford Highway shopping center just outside the Perimeter—and quickly ignited a debate as to whether Sichuan standard-bearer Tasty China had finally been dethroned. Gu’s Bistro was formidable in talent, manned by Yiquan Gu, a veteran chef with prodigious restaurant experience on the West Coast and beyond; his wife, Qiongyao Zhang, who was top of her class in culinary school in the family’s native Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province; and their daughter, Yvonne, who’d earned two nursing degrees and had agreed to switch gears to help her family. The restaurant owed its success in part to a combination of serious cooking skills and an ability—mostly Yvonne’s—to connect with the clientele.

Zahed Khan first came to Gu’s Bistro as a customer. When the soft-spoken, half-Indian, half-Iranian Georgia Tech grad couldn’t find a website for the restaurant, he volunteered to help launch one. He also ended up tweaking the menu’s wording to make it more customer-friendly (“I told them not to put the words ‘black fungus’ on the menu,” he remembers). Eventually, the Oklahoma-born, Singapore-raised Khan married the daughter of the house. Everything was going gangbusters.

Zahed Khan and Yvonne Gu Khan with their daughter
Zahed Khan and Yvonne Gu Khan with their daughter at Gu’s Kitchen

Photograph by Ben Rollins

In 2015, shortly before their lease was up for renewal, the family decided to close the restaurant. Chef Gu, who was nearing 60, didn’t see himself cooking a 100-item menu for another decade. Yvonne Gu Khan and her husband had a plan for keeping her parents’ legacy going: Gu’s Dumplings, a basic counter with a simplified menu in the hip environs of Krog Street Market. The half-moon dumplings at the market stall became a hit, but they weren’t enough to console diners who’d fallen under the spell of chef Gu’s many Chengdu delicacies.

It turns out that as much as customers missed chef Gu’s food, “Dad missed cooking,” Gu Khan says. A comeback was inevitable. Once again, the family leased a space on Buford Highway, closer to town and in a better location than the original. Last November, they returned to culinary form with Gu’s Kitchen, a more modern-looking noodle and dumpling house than Gu’s Bistro, initially with distressingly short hours (so as not to overwhelm the kitchen). Gu Khan and her husband heralded the return of Gu’s with an Instagram-ready invention: a small but heavy stainless-steel stand into which two slightly downward-angled chopsticks are inserted. If it doesn’t sound terribly interesting, consider that, when it lands on the table draped with cold, thin Chengdu noodles slippery with chili oil (one of the restaurant’s specialties), it looks as if a ghost is holding those chopsticks, a mouthful of noodles eerily suspended in the air. Everyone who came in simply had to order it—and share photos of it, of course—and the restaurant was launched.

A ghost eating Chengdu noodles

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Such newfangled publicity contraptions would be of little consequence if not for the quality of the cooking. While some of the dishes, such as the aforementioned ones, use the finest grade of commercially available Taiwanese noodles, Qiongyao Zhang rolls the stiff dough by hand for the ropy, chewy ones that are among Chengdu’s best-known street foods. Rolling pin in hand, the matriarch shapes her dough into a thick rectangle and cuts each noodle cleanly with a cleaver. She then gently stretches them before laying them in a half-sheet pan, where they wiggle ever so slightly before coming to a rest.

In addition to seeking out the noodles, longtime fans and eager millennials come to Gu’s Kitchen in droves for the Zhong-style dumplings, a 100-year-old recipe originating in Chengdu, prepared daily in a separate room in the back of the restaurant. In this cool space, separate from the brutally hot main kitchen, you’ll find Zhang and her assistants making piles and piles of pork, chicken, or vegetable fillings for the famous dumplings, served in slightly sweet sauce that’s ruby-red from the housemade chili oil.

Under pressure from his followers, many of whom were original customers (and also because he can’t help himself), chef Gu has taken to adding dishes to the menu. Tea-smoked duck, smoked pork tongue, baby bok choy with Chinese mushrooms, and dozens of other delights have joined the core dishes.

A second location of Gu’s Dumplings is about to open in the Halcyon multi-use development north of Alpharetta, but Buford Highway is the mothership. Standing in the modern and efficient kitchen with several giant woks, chef Gu approaches his craft with the same energy that has motivated him since he started cooking at 18. “My father and mother are very proud of their Chengdu techniques,” says Gu Khan, who, along with her husband and three daughters (including an infant), is posted up at Gu’s Kitchen more often than not. “It’s all about the family.”

4897 Buford Highway, Chamblee, 470-299-2388

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.