“It’s time to retire,” said owner Sandy Lo.
Lo and Chef Chao Nguyen opened Sampan at 985 Peters Creek Parkway on October 15, 1991. Lo was born in Hong Kong, where her family was in the restaurant business, and she lived in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia before coming to North Carolina. She moved to Charlotte because one of her brothers lived there, and soon she started looking for her own restaurant to open.
Lo brought Chau Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who had mastered Chinese cuisine and with whom Lo had worked in Charlotte.
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But eventually his fortune began to decline. “Peters Creek used to be a lot better,” Lo said. “Years ago, this street was very busy.”
Still, the always likeable and energetic Lo carried on. Lo understands customer service. You only had to come in once for Lo to remember you. Usually, Lo’s was the first and last face a customer saw at Sampan.
That became especially true in later years when the clientele dwindled, with many moving to newer, better parts of town and competing restaurants. Slow days were more common. Sometimes only one or two tables were occupied during lunch or dinner.
Lo closed the dining room in 2020 for about six months. But even two years after its full reopening, the restaurant has not recovered.
During this time, Lo and Nguyen became the entire staff. “I was a waitress, kitchen helper, dishwasher, everything,” Lo said with a laugh.
Even now, things are moving so slowly that she and Nguyen do almost all the work, sometimes with the help of Nguyen’s teenage son.
Still, Lo has no complaints. She ran well.
She fondly remembers all the recurring assignments she received from Wake Forest students from China. “They have given me a lot of support. Sometimes they were here five days a week. Especially on weekends you could hear all the people speaking Chinese,” she said with a smile.
While Sampan had the usual mile-long favorites menu found at nearly every other Chinese restaurant in town, it also had an “extensive authentic menu” on which each dish had an accompanying color photograph to guide and entice the uninitiated.
But the menu also featured Lo’s own personal favorites. Those include roast duck, roast chicken and steamed fish fillet.
Other popular items on the extensive authentic menu included the Chinese Eggplant, String Bean Delight with Pork, Ginger Beef with Spring Onion, Hong Kong BBQ Pork, and the Shrimp Stuffed Tofu.
Of course, many people came for the more common items too, including fried rice, hot and sour soup, General Tso’s chicken, pork lo mein, and crispy scallion chicken.
Lo is too much of a master of customer service to ever refuse a customer a request – no matter how desperately she wished they would try something from the extensive authentic menu.
“People still order chow mein,” she said with a “what-can-you-do” smile born of infinite patience.
Nguyen, 62, will likely continue to cook, but he has no definite plans. “Maybe another year,” he said.
In the past 30 years, Lo has not had time for anything other than the restaurant. Her husband passed away in 2006. She has never had children and she has no relatives close by. Two brothers are in California, but she would rather stay here.
“I’m worried because I don’t have a hobby. But I’m still very energetic,” she said.
“I’m going to miss my customers.”
PHOTOS: Sampan Chinese Restaurant closes after 31 years