When Rhiannon Esposito got her first job at age 18 in a Chinese restaurant in the Northeast Kingdom, she knew nothing about working in a restaurant.
“I didn’t even really like eating Chinese food that much,” she said.
Two decades later, Esposito, 44, and her husband Yong Huang, 45, opened their own eatery, serving authentic Chinese and Vietnamese food in the small Northeast Kingdom town of Danville. They named it Huang’s Noodle Shop.
“People don’t even know what they’re missing. They think of Chinese food as greasy and fried,” Esposito said. “That’s not at all the case.”
None of the food at Huang’s Noodle Shop is the type of “Americanized” Chinese food served at many restaurants, including the one Esposito and Huang met at 21 years ago when he barely spoke any English. It’s the kind of food that Esposito said the cooks and waitstaff at those restaurants eat in the back for their communal meal before or during service.
“For 20 years, I got to try stuff that nobody else got to have,” she said. “They’d bring stuff from Chinatown (in Boston), and they’d cook for themselves in the back. I got to try all of that.”
The idea for Huang’s Noodle Shop — located in the basement of the Masonic Lodge in downtown Danville — started from a daydream the couple always talked about: opening a food truck or a booth at the farmers market selling pho. People would otherwise have to drive for hours to get the Vietnamese rice noodle soup.
The couple bought a house in Danville in 2011, where Esposito became a stay-at-home mom for their nine children while Huang continued to work at an “Americanized” Chinese restaurant six, or sometimes seven, days a week. However, when their youngest turned 12 and Esposito was getting the itch to do something different, things started to fall into place for that daydream.
In late 2022, Esposito’s neighbors — the owners of Papa Tirozzi’s Bakery and Pizza, which served authentic Italian pastries and pizza — announced that they were moving to St. Johnsbury, leaving their spot in the Masonic Lodge vacant.
Esposito asked around about the cost of rent and ended up sitting down to talk about a potential lease with a friend she hadn’t known was a Mason.
“It wasn’t any grand plan,” she said. “It was more spontaneous.”
Esposito told her husband about the restaurant just before signing the lease, saying he could help if he wanted to.
“For the longest time, it was just going to be me and my kids,” she said. “And we were going to bring something nobody had and it was just going to be fun.”
However, to Esposito’s delight, Huang quickly got involved with the cooking, expanding the idea from a pho and bubble tea shop to a full-blown casual restaurant offering various types of ramen, Chinese steamed buns, entrees and appetizers not found for miles.
“(My husband) really cares a lot about his food,” she said. “He cares about the quality, and he really, really gets so happy when people compliment the food.”
Huang was born in Vietnam and arrived in China as a war refugee at 10 months old with the rest of his family. He started working in restaurants in China at age 13 to support his family, immigrating to the United States at 19 — where he continued to work in restaurants and paid his parent’s rent.
Huang’s Noodle Shop opened its doors to the public in May, serving takeout as well as offering casual eat-in tables for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday.
“The main goal in opening was for us to be together, work together, have the kids with us and spend more time together as a family and do something that we can be proud of,” Esposito said. “We have all these kids, and it’s just sad to me that he missed so much — now he knows them so much better and even the kids know him better.”
Many of the couple’s children can be seen helping out in the restaurant from time to time. In fact, their 15-year-old daughter Naomi designed the shop’s logo and is at work on a design for Huang’s Noodle Shop merchandise.
Esposito said she’s been pleased with the restaurant’s reception so far.
“We’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback,” she said.
Eric Bach, president of the Danville Chamber of Commerce, said it’s nice to have another food option in the Caledonia County town of 2,300.
“Folks were kind of upset when they first heard that Papa Tirozzi’s was leaving the space and moving to the far side in St. Johnsbury,” he said, referring to the pizzeria and bakery that moved out of the noodle shop’s location in September 2022. “I think everyone is happy to see that something came back into the space.”
Bach added that it’s great that Huang’s is a family-run business and that it’s nice to see everyone chipping in.
“(Huang’s) is a good addition to our community,” he said. “I’m happy we’re growing, not shrinking.”
While they eventually decided to serve General Gau’s chicken — also known as General Tso’s chicken — to appeal to those looking for a more typical American experience of Chinese restaurants, Huang’s always uses jasmine rice and all-white meat versus the typical white rice and dark meat.
“We have to have a balance because we don’t live in a place where people are used to a lot of different foods,” Esposito said.
However, she said other people come in and know exactly what they want to order from the lineup of authentic dishes. The shop is also introducing many in town to new foods. Esposito said that some customers who had never tried pho before now come in and order it every day.
“Some people don’t know what they’re missing,” Esposito said. “We had to be a little bit brave to step out of the box, break the mold a little bit and try to introduce people to something new.”