Song Song: Health first

Photo Justin Ide Photo Justin Ide

For starters, Song Song’s Zhou and Bing’s pork and leek bing—a pancake, ever-so-delicately crisped and stuffed with an exquisitely-seasoned pork patty—is heavenly and, quite possibly, the best cheap lunch in Charlottesville. But that’s not really the point here. The point is that a woman with a business degree started a restaurant because she wants people to be healthy.

“When I first started,” said Song, “I just wanted the customers to have healthy, nutritional food, especially for people who could not afford expensive food, that they could come here and have low-cost healthy food.”

When she talks about how much effort, thought, and experimentation she has put into the select few items that are on the menu at her Downtown Mall restaurant, and how all of them are there to contribute to the long-term well-being of her customers (or at least not make things any more difficult for their bodies), you get the sense that she processes it all at very personal level. But her earnest zeal for keeping people alive, healthy, and happy, while not taking too big a toll on their wallets, may also be her weak point.

“There are a lot of things I do here I know are not the way to make money,” said Song, who holds an MBA and was once an assistant CEO. “But I want to do things this way.”

She serves three basic things, all of it made by her, from scratch: a very healthy porridge called zhou (pronounced “Joe”), bings, and salads. A native of northeast China, Song serves real-deal food like they eat in her home country. “Everything here takes at least half a day to prepare,” she said. “So I cook a big batch, like at home, and share it with the customers.”

How healthy is Song’s food? “Sometimes I have the hospital calling me for patients who want the zhou,” said Song. “Zhou is very good recovery food. …In China, it is called the man’s fuel station and the woman’s beauty salon.”

Song had a couple other lives before getting into the food business. She was a cancer researcher and graduate student in microbiology at Case Western Reserve University. But it was while working as an executive that she developed a debilitating case of carpal tunnel syndrome that sidelined her for two years. Once she got healthy, she wanted a new line of work that would inspire her to the same degree her previous careers had, and she went at the food business with the same motivating factor that pushed her toward cancer research: people.

“In research, it takes years to get anywhere,” she said. “When I first started I didn’t really think about longevity, I just wanted to make healthy food. Years from now, if some people have the memory of zhou and bing, that is enough for me to make it worth it. That makes me feel good. I wish for all my customers to live a long time.”