HOUSTON - Yunan Yang never intended to open a restaurant when she first arrived in the United States from China 10 years ago. Her plan was to study cancer. As a post-doctorate cancer researcher, she spent six years in Madison, Wisconsin, and worked to publish her findings in scientific journals.
She used radiation and chemicals in her research, which took a toll on her body. She said her job affected her platelet count, which made her bleed easily.
"After I (lost) two babies when (I was) pregnant, I had to make a big decision. My doctor told me, 'Yunan, you have to write your last words (will) because we don't have time to save you. Your body, whole body (at any) moment could be bleeding,'" Yang recounted.
For her health, and to prevent future miscarriages, Yang chose a second career as a restaurateur, moving in the opposition direction of many immigrants in the United States. Instead of entering the restaurant business first in hopes of sending her kids to college, Yang began working in the restaurant business after her life in research.
Her inspiration for opening a restaurant came during a trip to a conference in California, where she saw an hour-long line of hungry patrons waiting to get into a Chinese restaurant.
In Madison, the small city where her lab was located, she said "We don't have a good Chinese restaurant."
Yang did not start a restaurant in Chinese enclaves like many other immigrants across the U.S. She opened restaurants outside of Chinese communities, in affluent neighborhoods. In Houston, the most diverse city in America, she said its residents' tastes in Chinese food have become quite discerning.
"American guests, they can find out which one is authentic Chinese restaurant." Yang continued, "They travel a lot around the world. They know (what) original Chinese food looks like."
Ravi Chawda is a diner who loves spicy food. He has never been to China but knows the difference between the so-called American Chinese food and something more like what he would get in China.
"I've done a lot of business with the Chinese, so I've been to some pretty authentic places. This is by far one of the most authentic," Chawda said.
Yang said one key ingredient in her restaurant is fresh peppercorns from her hometown of Chongqing, China near Sichuan, a province known for its spicy dishes. The peppercorns are shipped overnight to Houston and create a flavor called "mala" in Mandarin meaning numbing, tingly, and spicy.
The hometown flavors are also drawing loyal Chinese guests, such as Yan Xiang Yu, who attended university in Chengdu, a city in Sichuan.
"I think the biggest highlight is they can really deliver well the 'ma' (numbing/tingling) feeling. The peppercorns are very flavorful," said Yu who would eat at Pepper Twins when he craves the "mala" feeling in his mouth.
Yang started her first restaurant four years ago, since then, she's expanded to six locations throughout Houston.
Not only does Yang have a successful restaurant business, she also now has two children who inspired the logo for Pepper Twins.