Since opening in 2011, the narrow, brightly lit restaurant Spicy Village on Forsyth Street has become a destination within Manhattan’s Chinatown. The restaurant’s spicy big-tray chicken — a platter of bone-in bird loaded with Sichuan peppercorns — is a draw, as are the hand-pulled noodles, which Eater New York declared in 2017 to be the city’s best. Before COVID, waits during prime times were a given, and as the city continues to reopen, that’s been the case again.
So I was intrigued when I learned that, late last week, a new restaurant called New Spicy Village had opened a few blocks away. Had Spicy Village’s owners been able to build on their success and expand after struggling through the past two years? Or, given the proximity, perhaps the first restaurant was simply moving into a bigger location?
When I dropped by New Spicy Village on its first day, the space was empty, save for some employees. In the foyer, there was a small altar and three pieces of fruit for good luck. “The rent is almost over at the other location,” a worker told me, sharing that she’d worked at the original location a couple years ago. After I commented on the larger size of the new space, she responded, “It’s always so busy over there. This is better.” As she explained it to me, Spicy Village’s owners opened the Eldridge Street location to replace the original.
But this is not what they will tell you at the original Spicy Village.
Finished with my beef pancake at the new restaurant, I strolled over to the original space. The tables were full, and a group of three was waiting outside — why, I wondered, weren’t they told to go to the new location? Did the staff somehow forget they’d just expanded? I called the restaurant the next day and owner Wendy Liang refuted the New Spicy Village story, exasperated. “No, no, no,” she told me when I asked about the Forsyth Avenue lease running out. “Oh my God. Who tells someone this? We did not open another location, okay?”
According to Eater New York, the New Spicy Village was opened by Zeng Xin Lian, the brother of Wendy Lian, who used to work at Spicy Village. In our conversation, Liang was emphatic: “We’re just by ourselves. We’re not opening a new location,” she said. “These people copied our food, and the menu, sign, whatever. They are not together with us. They just copied us. They worked here before — we are not together.”
Curious if there was a misunderstanding, I asked a Chinatown local to pop into New Spicy Village. An employee told him the same story I’d heard: Same restaurant, same chef, and same menu, only bigger and better, and, oh yeah, the original is closing. It wasn’t a misunderstanding then. When I called New Spicy Village over the weekend, the manager repeated that the restaurants were owned by the same people. When I told her that the people running Spicy Village said otherwise, her tone changed. “The owner is not here. I’m busy now, maybe you can call me back? Thank you so much,” she said. Then she hung up.
When I looked at the new restaurant’s website, I noticed that menu items were the same — spicy big-tray chicken costs $18.95 at New Spicy Village, a dollar more than the price at the original restaurant — but that the logo reads “since 2021,” and there’s no mention of the first location. Originally, I’d been excited that the mom-and-pop restaurant had expanded, but now it seemed like something more sinister may be going on, and that I’d instead discovered the beginning of a possible new restaurant feud. If these restaurants really weren’t connected — as the person at the original location said — battle lines would have to be drawn, and customers would have to choose a side. Philly has Pat’s versus Geno’s. Dumbo has Grimaldi’s versus Juliana’s. (RIP Bar Pitti versus Da Silvano’s.) Does Chinatown now have Spicy Village versus New Spicy Village?
Earlier this year, the owners of Cafe China alleged former employees had “opened a copycat restaurant” while they were in the process of relocating the business. That restaurant, Chili, at least had a different name. By comparison, this kind of copycat noodle house would be particularly brazen: New Spicy Village is only a three-minute walk from Spicy Village. Even if it were opened by the family of Spicy Village’s owner, they’re telling people it’s the same business, which is not the case.
In a documentary video produced earlier this year by the group HiLo, Spicy Village’s Liang discussed the devastating effects that the pandemic had on her business. “We’re close to not making rent. We’re feeling pretty beaten,” she explains in Mandarin. She adds that she’s considered leaving the industry, but she’s only worked in restaurants since immigrating to the U.S., making other work seem impossible. “So all my English and skills are only enough to make a living in a restaurant,” she tearfully tells HiLo. “I don’t think I could do anything else.”