AAPI Heritage Month: Thriving Asian restaurants to celebrate
These days, it’s common to see a sushi joint on the same street as a McDonald’s. In the past century, Asian American and Pacific Islanders have transformed the American palate. Yet many of these businesses face steeper financial hardships due to the pandemic, economic uncertainty and rising anti-Asian hate.
“They suffered tremendously,” said Min Zhou, director of the Asia Pacific Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Traditionally, many Asian American and Pacific Islanders found work in restaurants because they faced discrimination in other fields. “That was the only thing that they could do,” said Justin T. Huang, a University of Michigan professor of marketing whose research on anti-Asian racism in the pandemic found that Asian restaurants’ revenue declined more than others. While just 7 percent of Americans identify as Asian, the Pew Research Center recently reported that 12 percent of the country’s restaurants serve Asian food.
A new generation is looking to do more than just survive, said Huang, who added that his grandfather’s work in a restaurant enabled his dad to be a physicist and him to become a professor. “They have a message” to offer, “and they want to now express themselves through food.”
From the oldest tofu enterprise in the nation, to a Filipino fusion food cart that just opened in March, The Washington Post focused during this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month on six businesses defying the odds, passing down tradition and so much more.
– Jason Ogata, Portland, Ore.
Jason Ogata grew up eating Ota Tofu.
“That’s kind of how I thought tofu was supposed to taste,” said Ogata, of the handcrafted tofu, made only with soybeans, water and nigari, a salt solution extracted from seawater used to solidify the tofu. The fresh tofu has no preservatives and is like “fresh bread.”
Ota Tofu, which was started in 1911, is the oldest active tofu enterprise in the United States. Unlike many other Japanese American businesses, Ota reopened after family members returned from incarceration camps during the Second World War.
As a district manager of a climate solutions company with no food experience, taking over the tofu business never came to mind until 2017, when the Ota family decided to sell.
Ogata, whose family knew the Otas, flew into Portland, Ore., from Virginia and decided to buy the business after hearing how connected customers were to the food.
“I wouldn’t have done it if they weren’t willing to teach me everything that they knew,” said Ogata, who apprenticed with Ko Ota, the last direct descendant to manage the shop. “He just wanted to make sure that I was making the best tofu that I can.”
Since Ogata took over the business in 2019, sales have doubled. The shop produces up to 3,500 pounds of tofu every day, and Ogata plans to open a bigger facility and expand its distribution beyond Portland this year.
– Pay Lay and Beh Pah Gaw, Kansas City, Kan.
Ki KoKo Farms
“When they came here, they didn’t speak any English,” said Taeh Paw Gaw, of her mother and aunt. “They didn’t have any money.”
The sisters, Beh Paw Gaw, 64, and Pay Lay, 57, fled their country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 1997 to a refugee camp in Thailand for a decade, and were resettled in the United States in 2007. The next year, they participated in a farming program for refugees and bought their own 2.5-acre farm in the middle of a Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood in 2011. They named their farm “Ki Koko,” which means “two sisters,” in Karen [pronounced “KN’YAW”], a distinct language and ethnic group.
They’re “just the sweetest people ever,” but also the “most hard-working and resilient,” said Amanda Lindahl, who worked for the farming program with the Gaw sisters.
Nowadays, the two sisters are up by 5:30 in the morning and work 12-hour days, fueled by the joy of selling both Western and Asian vegetables at the local farmer’s market, said Beh Paw.
It is all to “build a better life,” said Beh Paw, who is thinking about passing the farm to two of her seven children.
The goal, she said, is to “be independent, live a good life, help the poor, be a good role model and don’t forget where you come from.”
– Lee Shotts, Leavenworth, Kan.
Hyundai Korean Restaurant
When Lee Shotts was figuring out her next act, she realized “if there was an economic downturn, we still needed to eat.” Twenty years ago, she opened a Korean market near Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
Soldiers from the base, who had served on tours in South Korea, started asking, “Ajumma [Korean for “aunt”], I want some Korean food. Are you going to cook?”
Those pleas convinced Shotts, who emigrated from South Korea in 1981 to marry an American soldier, to open an adjoining restaurant in 2006. Inside a nondescript brick building, she serves everything from Korean pancakes with kimchi to marinated beef short ribs.
“A lot of guys are meat and potatoes,” said Vickie Nichols, a former customer who has worked with Shotts for the past 10 years. But “food is the universal language. Everybody understands food, and it brings people together.” She’s seen Shotts build a community, as she takes care of her great-grand son, and gives away food to the sick and homeless.
– Rani Soudagar, Washington, D.C.
When Rani Soudagar first emigrated from Bombay in 1997 at the age of 20, she was open to “whatever it takes,” even if that meant cleaning bathrooms.
She became a masseuse and an esthetician, worked in yogurt and coffee shops, and decorated cakes for Baskin-Robbins. She navigated her way through several challenges, including being diagnosed with lupus and sleeping at a salon where she worked when she could not afford rent.
But thanks to a supportive son who always assured her that “everything is going to be good,” plus a stimulus check and a new understanding landlord, she was able to open her own business in 2020.
Spicez is a door to another world, tucked inside the second floor of a historic brick house in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Hard-to-find spices line the walls in a rainbow of colors.
In addition to spices, Soudagar offers weekly takeaway meals, sweets, reiki, henna art and eyebrow threading. She also holds workshops at other locations like the Qatar Embassy and the Washington Printmakers Gallery.
“I just want to be known for giving what I know” to others, said the 46-year-old.
– Shao Bruce and Zongmin Li, Alexandria, Va.
Yunnan by Potomac Noodle House
Growing up, Shao Bruce struggled to find his identity as a Chinese American who did not speak Chinese well in predominantly White neighborhoods, so he found an outlet in sports. But when he tore his ACL in his junior high school year, it gutted him so hard, he started partying and then found an outlet in drugs, using them and selling them.
“I have had such a long, rocky, twisty, winding road of an adolescent life,” said the 32-year-old, who was repeatedly kicked out of different high schools and had his skull crushed in on a drug deal. “This restaurant is all a reflection of who I’ve really worked to become.”
Originally, his mom, Zongmin Li, had the idea for a restaurant after taking early retirement to take care of Bruce’s stepfather, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She really missed her hometown dish from the Yunnan province of China, mixian, a slippery, light rice noodle in a savory, spicy sauce.
But the family had no background in food service. Both of Bruce’s parents worked in economic development. His mother started apprenticing at another restaurant, while Bruce entered what he jokingly called “YouTube University.”
After opening in 2019, at first the family had “no clue what they were doing,” said Bruce. They had to learn how to keep food fresh and find dependable workers. They ended up going to the local high school for help. At the start of the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hate, someone yelled at his mother to “Go back to your country.”
But just as how his parents stayed loyal to his needs, Bruce did the same when taking over the restaurant in 2020 with his staff. Many of those same high-schoolers still work there. And Bruce plans to move to a bigger location next year.
“Everything is possible because of my parents,” said Bruce.
– Mike Bautista and Xrysto Castillo, Portland, Ore.
Makulít is a common Filipino criticism parents have of their children — stubborn, persistent to the point of being annoying. This is also a trait businesses need to stay afloat.
“It’s a term thrown at a kid, but it can apply to anyone who’s being stubborn or just playing too much,” said Mike Bautista, 33.
Mike Bautista partnered with a co-worker, Xrysto Castillo, 34, to open a Portland food cart in March. They serve Filipino fusion, such as Adobo Poutine, which melds pulled pork gravy with cheese curds and fries. The two were cooking at a Chinese restaurant when their mentors opened a new food cart area with lower than market-rate rents to cultivate community. It is called Lil’ America and exclusively features carts by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ chefs.
“This is just something we’ve been thinking of, dreaming of, for years,” said Castillo, who says that the duo’s “stubbornness” led them to open the cart in the middle of economic uncertainty and rising racism.
They wanted to focus on food that reminded them of home, especially since the pandemic made them feel that “seeing family was a very unsure thing,” said Bautista.
“Food is a big part of everyone’s culture, but for Filipinos, food means abundance, joy and love,” said Bautista. “As two Asians in America, it means a lot for us to show our family that we’re doing well.”
He added, “The risks we take simply would not be possible without the groundwork and support laid out by the generations before us, in no small part because they worked with the intention of supporting us. We intend to do the same.”
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