Ami Schreiber is a software developer, but he always dreamed of owning a kosher Chinese restaurant. He grew up in New Jersey, just close enough for his family to be able to head into Manhattan for kosher Chinese food as a special treat. Over the years, Schreiber’s affection for Chinese food grew. When he moved to the Maryland suburbs in 1999, he continued his pursuit of the cuisine, with visits to the kosher David Chu’s China Bistro in Baltimore and the now-shuttered Royal Dragon in Rockville.
When a friend saw a flyer advertising the sale of the non-kosher Chin & Lee Chinese Carry Out in the kosher enclave that is Kemp Mill Shopping Center, Schreiber knew the spot was bashert (meant to be). The shopping center is home to Shalom Kosher Grocery Store, The Kosher Pastry Oven and Ben Yehuda Pizza. There is a synagogue in the parking lot, a yeshiva down the street and three other synagogues and Jewish businesses in the immediate vicinity. Schreiber, an active member of the Kemp Mill Jewish community, knew he needed to jump at this opportunity. He wasn’t a restaurateur, but he had the chutzpah and drive needed to figure it out.
His story gets somewhat complicated at this point. Schreiber contacted the restaurant with a bid. There was another bidder, and it turned out to be someone he knew. They talked about becoming partners, but it didn’t work out. Schreiber upped his bid, knowing he didn’t have funds immediately available, but praying it would all work out in his favor. The other bidder, who was a restaurateur, dropped out, saying, “Clearly it means a lot more to you than it does to me and I don’t want to rob you of your longtime dream…I’m backing out, and I’m happy to help you.” After weeks of waiting for the pieces to come together things fell into place, and Schreiber got his Chinese restaurant.
“I liken the imagery to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where he’s running, and the walls are closing in, and his hat comes off, and he reaches in and grabs it right before it closes,” says Schreiber. “There was a lot of drama, and I was working full time while this was happening. Finally, it just all came together.”
Schreiber knew that he wanted his kosher Chinese restaurant to be a carryout spot. “My wife and I were both working and commuting. I’ve been that guy sitting in traffic, and my wife calls and says, ‘Are you home yet? I’m starving.’ Chinese food has always been a savior. At the end of the day, no matter how stressed you are, or how much is going on in your life, you can always stop for Chinese.”
Schreiber was considering the name “Holy Chow” for his restaurant, but he wasn’t quite sure about it, so he embarked on some market research. “On Friday nights, my 12-year-old son Eli and I like to go for long walks just to have some quality time together, and one of those Friday nights, I decided to start asking random people we met on the street what they thought of the name. Every person had nearly the same reaction, which started with a grin that almost instantly broke out into a really wide smile. You could see the gears turning when they were like, ‘Huh, that’s cute… Oh, wait…wow! That’s really clever!’”
He hired two former chefs from the well-respected Oriental East restaurant in Silver Spring, which closed in September 2017. One chef is Mandarin, and the other Cantonese. The menu is extensive and focuses primarily on familiar dishes including sesame beef, chicken with garlic sauce, and beef with broccoli. Entire sections of the menu are devoted to noodles, chow mein, fried rice and egg foo young, as well as vegetarian options.
The fledgling restaurateur admits that when Holy Chow first opened it was a “free-for-all.” The kitchen couldn’t keep up with the demand, and customers were getting angry about long waits for food. Schreiber prides himself on food that’s hot and fresh, but with a small kitchen and two chefs, it took some time to gauge capacity in terms of how many orders they could reasonably fulfill. Uri Herzog of Chopstix, a popular kosher Chinese carryout in Teaneck, NJ, is a sweat equity partner in Holy Chow and is helping them through the early trials and tribulations.
I called the restaurant at noon on a Sunday to place an order for pick-up at 6:00 pm. The food was ready within minutes of my 5:55 pm arrival. As I waited, customers phoning in were being told it would be an hour and a half before they could pick up food. Pro tip: Call early. The restaurant’s Facebook page is being used for shout-outs when wait times are short. Schreiber is committed to his philosophy and knows he can’t please everyone, but he really, really wants to try.
Schreiber is also grateful for the support from owners of other local kosher restaurateurs, including Michael Chelst of DC’s Char Bar and Josh Katz of Ben Yehuda Pizza in Wheaton. Kosher-keeping patrons often express their gratitude to Schreiber and his wife Rivka, a financial planner, whom he credits for being a critical partner in Holy Chow.
“Someone came up to me in synagogue and took both my hands and was holding them. They looked at me, practically tearing up, and said, ‘What you are doing here is unbelievable, and we cannot thank you enough.’”
Whether the restaurant is successful in the long-term doesn’t seem to be the end goal for Schreiber. For now, he is content in the fact that he was able to follow his dream and open a kosher Chinese restaurant in the Kemp Mill Shopping Center, just moments away from where he lives and prays.
Holy Chow, 301-649-5466, 1331 Lamberton Drive, Silver Spring, MD, Sunday–Thursday 11:30 am–9:30 pm, Friday 11:30 am–2:30 pm, closed Saturday. Kosher.