With a name like China Express, expectations from passers-by may not be set at a high level, but nearly everyone who has taken the time to stop in once at the family-owned South Bethany restaurant has returned for more.
Zhe (pronounced “Zee”) Yiap and his parents — mother, Yoke Chong and father, Sau Yiap — have worked to ensure complete customer satisfaction for everyone who comes in to eat at China Express. Now going on eight years, the family-run business has become synonymous with the area’s Asian cuisine options, combining a traditional atmosphere, outstanding customer service and quality food.
Yiap’s mother had worked for the previous owners’ parents for 15 years at the location before her family acquired the property in 2000. With financial assistance from a personal loan, the family was able to make the business their own.
“It really has been a blessing,” Zhe Yiap said. “It was a real work-in-progress. There were some improvements to make, but we got through it.”
During lunch and dinner hours, dining tables can fill up quickly, with to-go orders being placed every few minutes — especially in the peak season. However, it’s the local customers who keep the restaurant in business year-round.
“We have a lot of locals here in the off-season,” said Yiap. “There are some locals that we don’t even see until after the summertime. It’s really nice to have so much support from all of them. They’re all amazing.”
He may be meeting new people each day, but Yiap is sure to offer a friendly greeting to the frequent patrons, too.
“I get to know the regulars pretty well,” he said. “After a while, you know when they’ll come in and what most of them want to order.”
Yiap and his family provide customers with a personable aspect to every order that is placed.
“We cater to any kind of diet — gluten-free, low carb, low fat and low sodium,” he said. “It’s important to give the customer what they want. Vegetables, sauces, spices — we can fix anything how they want it, they only have to tell me what they like.” Oftentimes, orders will even stray from the menu, based on the customers’ preference.
Making that connection with his customers has allowed Yiap to ensure that their partialities are being met.
“At other restaurants, you don’t always know what you’re getting, or might not like what you’re getting once you order it,” he said. “A lot of places refuse to change an order around just because it’s not on the menu. I like to give people what they like to eat. What’s the point of paying for something if you’re not going to enjoy it?”
Originally from Malaysia, Yiap’s father came to the United States in 1980, settling in Reading, Pa., before Zhe and his mother came to the U.S. in 1989. The three lived in Dover until 2000, when Zhe’s mother started her work in South Bethany.
This year, Zhe was reunited with his brother, Alex Yiap, after nearly 19 years. Alex had spent the better part of the past two decades traveling the world.
“It was a shock at first,” said Zhe, “but it’s very nice to have us all together again.” Alex and his wife even plan to help with the restaurant in the near future.
As for working in a family business, Zhe Yiap noted that it helps to unite everyone.
“It’s great,” he said. “Not everyone can do it, but we all get along well, and we really appreciate the time we get to spend with each other. We try to stay as family-based as possible.”
Much of their heritage is represented through the meals prepared at China Express. “At one point,” said Yiap, “Malaysia had one of the biggest cultural mixes in the world.”
Their food reflects this Eastern diversity, with an emphasis on Hunan, Canton and Szechuan styles. Among some of their more frequently ordered dishes are General Tso’s chicken and Imperial Delight – a medley of shrimp, scallops and vegetables in a spicy brown sauce. Pan-seared dumplings, hot spring rolls and home-made soups are popular starters at the restaurant.
With delivery trucks coming in as often as four days a week from Philadelphia and New York, customers can be sure that everything they’re eating is of the freshest quality. “We never have a shortage of anything,” Yiap said.
He noted that the meals themselves do not entirely resemble the typical orders that other Chinese restaurants provide. “Other places use a lot of dark meat for their chicken, and there’s usually a lot of batter,” said Yiap. “We use all white meat here and little breading. We concentrate on sauces and flavors.”
Yiap and his father tend to the customers, providing for diners eating in and on-the-go, as Chong prepares nearly all the meals in the kitchen.
“She’s a perfectionist,” Yiap said of his mother. “She insists on the freshest meats and vegetables. She’s been doing this for quite some time, and she’s great at it.”
The restaurant draws returning customers from as far as Milton and Berlin, Md. “We also get a lot of compliments from the city folks,” said Yiap. “People from New York to Washington, to Jersey and Pennsylvania — they all love our food. They’ve compared us to Chinatown, and have told us we’re still the best.”
China Express recently underwent some down-time at the start of the month as the restaurant received a face-lift.
“We fixed up the kitchen,” said Yiap, “and cleaned everything imaginable.” The front dining area was repainted, as well. “We try to do a little bit at a time to make the place presentable and perfect,” Yiap said, assuring eager diners that the place is now up and running again. “A lot of our customers got worried and were afraid we were leaving, but they see we’re still here and they’re happy.”
Among some of the most relieved customers, eager for China Express to open back up were Pete Ciaramello, who works at Superior Screen and Glass in Ocean View, and coworker Linus Liudadicius.
“It’s the best food around, as far as Chinese places go,” said Ciaramello. “We come here basically every day for lunch, and we wanted to be the first ones back when they opened again. [Zhe] fixes everything just how I like it. It’s a great place to come to.”
China Express, located in the Seaside Village in South Bethany, beside South Bethany Seafood, is open six days a week and closed on Mondays. Off-season hours run from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., with a special lunch menu offered from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Dine-in and take-out are available. For more information or to place orders, call (302) 537-9956.