Hey, Friends! We haven’t done a local love roundup in a while now, and we put together a different version this month, one specifically dedicated to small and local restaurants we know and love that are owned by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
We recognize that there are multiple facets and consequences of the xenophobia plaguing our country, and that the current increase in hate toward the AAPI community has been flying slightly under the radar since January of 2020, really just gaining mainstream attention with recent acts of violence, most notably the murders of eight innocent people in Atlanta. This post does not address that wave of violence toward Asian Americans or the extensive history of it, but we do want to highlight the economic plight that also results from that same xenophobia.
While many dining establishments and small family-run businesses have been forced to close since March of 2020, most Asian-owned restaurants felt the effects of the pandemic much earlier, due to the hate speech bandied about when the coronavirus was first made public. Because public figures, aided by the interwebs, blamed SARS-CoV-2 on China, and subsequently, people of Chinese descent, foot traffic to many Chinatowns in our country came to an abrupt halt. Politicians in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities tried to highlight the issue by dining in Chinatown restaurants amid press coverage and photo ops., to no avail.
I recently heard cookbook author and culinary historian Grace Young on Splendid Table as the nation noted the anniversary of the worldwide pandemic, and the podcast episode (Saving Chinatown with Grace Young) is especially moving. Even though many food writers and some news outlets have covered this angle of the pandemic (and tried to help by sending customers to surviving eateries) it often goes unnoticed that many Chinese and Asian American-owned restaurants were already flailing in January. In Manhattan, 70 percent of Chinatown restaurants were closed by March 15, 2020. (To help support restaurants in the AAPI community in NYC, see Young’s project here.)
So, in light of the increasing hatred and xenophobia toward Asian-Americans (words matter, folks) and the economic impact on those families that’s gone largely unnoticed, we thought we’d send a little local love to some of our favorite Asian restaurants. If you’d like to support the AAPI community in other ways, check out the resources in our IG post.
Philly – Fav Asian Restaurants
Lex here…Philly’s Chinatown is one of my favorite places in the city. My daughter went to preschool there, so we would often stop at Pho Cali for a taste of Viet Nam, where we had just repatriated from. The owners were also from Sai Gon, where we had lived, so they were very enthusiastic when we came in, and loved to dote on Goose. One of my favorite photos is of Ms. Kim hugging Goose, but it’s too blurry to post here. We went, obviously, for the pho, but the Bún Thịt Nướng was delish as well. They’re open, and offering takeout and delivery as well.
The first restaurant I ever ate in in Philadelphia was Vietnam Restaurant in Chinatown. I was visiting and interviewing, and after a long day of walking around the city in high heels, I found this place and was in heaven. Bún Thịt Nướng was one of my fave meals from VN that I can still get in restaurants here, and Vietnam Restaurant delivered on authenticity and cozy atmosphere. It’s a place we take guests when they’re visiting, and it’s the first placed I ordered takeout from now that we’re staying home. They were also our Lunar New Year dinner party choice for delivery in 2020. The fried spring rolls also come wrapped in rice paper, so gluten-free folks can enjoy too. – Lex
*I was going to add Vietnam Palace, the rival across the street from Vietnam Restaurant. It was one of the last places we ate indoors during the Lunar New Year celebrations in 2020. We were very lucky to get a table without reservations (a large table) and to be in the restaurant when the parade came by and the dragon did the annual dance, so we got to watch from indoors as the firecrackers were set off the ward off evil spirits. It was so loud, and so much fun. Sadly, the restaurant was hard hit like many others in Chinatown, and by February 2020 announced they were selling everything. They closed on March 15, 2020.
Linzi here. With several locations in NY, we were thrilled when Nom Wah opened up a location in Philly in 2015. It’s my little guy’s fav place for soup dumplings, and everything else on the menu is delicious as well. Quite the history—it has been serving Chinese pastries, tea, and dim sum in NY since 1920. Owned by the Choy Family, then sold to Mr. Wally Tang (who had started working in the restaurant at age 16 and worked his way up to manager…and then owner), and then taken over recently by Wally’s nephew…we’re so happy it’s now making its own history in Philly as well.
Linzi here, again. We order takeout from Nam Phuong at a somewhat embarrassing frequency these days, but it used to be one of our favorite restaurants to go as a family (especially with other families with kids). Hope to get back there soon. This article shares what tourists from Vietnam order when they visit the restaurant, and there are a ton of fun family-style dinner options when dine-in returns, but our go-to for take out is the Bún Bò Nướng (Vermicelli with Grilled Beef) and the Cơm Tấm Gà Nướng for the kids (Broken Rice with Grilled Chicken). Yum, yum, yum!
Hey Gang, Shana here. Nan Zhou Noodle House has been a longtime favorite of ours – it’s one of the very first places we discovered after moving to the area, and is the reason both of my boys decided to learn how to use chopsticks. It’s not fancy, but the dumplings and noodle bowls – both served piping hot – are absolutely delicious. Cash only, but they now take venmo, too. For my full review, including our go-to order, see this old post. (Whoa – it was written during my post-chemo days, so my hair is…very short.)
Shana here, again. Though Linzi will likely roll her eyes at this entry (she’s an insufferable food snob)…Square on Square is probably our most-frequent takeout order. Our entire family is obsessed with their Singapore Rice Noodles, and I love that they’ll tweak each order: mild for Pax, super spicy for Mike and Raines, vegetarian for me. And I swear everything is ready in 10 minutes or less (even if they say it’ll be 40 min…it’s rarely more than 10). Nothing says ‘Thursday night’ more than a giant plate of Singapore Rice Noodles and wayyyy too many spring rolls. Yum.
Portland – Fav Asian Restaurants
Laura here. Anytime I ask Sienna (7) where she wants to go…it’s always XLB for soup dumplings. Gah, I miss going there right now, but restaurants here have now opened to 25% capacity so you better believe this is one of the first places we’ll get to. They do also have takeout on some of their other items. I can’t even describe how delicious the dumplings are, not to mention the 5 Spice Fried Chicken. Get thee there. Soon. We’ve always gone to the N. Williams location (gorg ambiance w/o being stuffy), but looks like they have a newer spot open in Slabtown now!
Laura again. I can’t even describe to you how chicken and rice could be so good. You can also buy their amazing Nong’s sauce that makes it so. BEST. I am so hungry right now, and this is just my second favorite place I’ve written about in this post. Gosh.
Speaking of chicken that is beyond, Hat Yai. GOSH. Just go ahead and get the whole Hat Yai chicken with sticky rice. Oh and some curry. I mean, just get it all. All of it. Two locations…I love the tiny spot on Killingsworth, but the Belmont locale is bigger.
So, this is one of the last places I went before lockdown. And I got to enjoy one of the best meals ever — with our own Kat, too! She was here on a work trip and we snuck away for one amazing evening of enjoying the best Thai BBQ and cocktails we’ve ever had. eem does amazing takeout, too, right now. I haven’t had breakfast yet y’all, and I’m killing myself here. Food = memories and they are strong, beautiful and so heartwarming, beyond the dishes or drinks themselves.
Summit, NJ – Fav Asian Restaurants
Meredith here! When I think of my favorite Asian restaurant, I think first and foremost of Japanese food — sushi in particular — and I can’t think about sushi without thinking about Taka Sushi. (What’s interesting about Taka Sushi is it’s actually owned by a Chinese couple. There’s a great NYT article on Taka Sushi from a few years ago that’s worth a read.) If my memory serves me right, Taka Sushi is squished between a laundromat and a bank, off the main drag in downtown Summit, NJ — a commuter town outside of NYC — where I grew up. Taka is where I first tried sushi. It’s where my best friend and I would go in high school with our babysitting money to have dinner (Spider Roll for her, Shrimp Tempura Roll for me, a playful tussle over who got the best flavor Japanese gum they gave you with your bill). Is the sushi amazing or is it nostalgia? I’m not sure, but I think it’s a bit of both. For years it remained the first place I went whether stepping off a train from Boston as a college kid or a plane from Florida as a newlywed. I haven’t been to my hometown for years, but when I go back, I know where my first stop will be.
Marquette, MI – Fav Asian Restaurants
Scotti here! Aoy LaChapelle, owner of The Rice Paddy, is famous here in Marquette. Everyone knows how delicious her food is, but it’s her personality that’s made her famous. She calls all of her customers “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” and curses like a sailor, making everyone laugh as they wait for their food in the tiny building that is The Rice Paddy. She keeps her prices low and never turns anyone away for not being able to pay. Every two years she returns to her hometown in Thailand where she brings the money saved from her tips to give to the children there, along with gifts of clothes, books…whatever they need. Aoy has a heart of gold, the mouth of a sailor and makes the most delicious Thai food ever. The Rice Paddy is a must-do if you’re ever in the area! (This is an awesome article on Aoy and The Rice Paddy, and if you want to see her in action at her restaurant, watch this video!) – Scotti
Grand Rapids, MI – Fav Asian Restaurants
Amy here. I try to hunt down good sushi places whenever I travel, and Maru Sushi is one of the bests I have ever had. I was shocked it was in the middle of Michigan, but once I learned the story of the owner — Robert Song — and how he not only sources fresh, amazing ingredients to make everything from scratch, but that he builds a chef-driven environment where they make sure to connect with the guests and personalize every dish — it began to make sense. The restaurant has always been a fun, energetic place to go, but the experience of the meal from start to finish is just really, really fantastic. The restaurant has since expanded, and you can find locations all across Michigan: Detroit, Lansing, Kalamazoo and Midland. It’s always a top food pick when I’m downstate!
Jess here! ATO Sushi is my favorite sushi spot in all of downtown Grand Rapids. Family-owned and operated (the owners are SO NICE), ATO is right in the heart of Grand Rapids, right across from the AMWAY Grand Hotel, and half a block from the ice skating rink and Grand Rapids Art Museum. ATO is a tiny cafe with a huge heart and the BEST SUSHI ever. Seriously, the sushi is so good that after eating just one roll, my mom declared herself a sushi lover for the first time in 40+ years. Now my parents demand to go whenever they are visiting from Chicago.
Madison, WI – Favorite Asian Restaurants
Hi! Kat here! Asian cuisine is my absolute favorite. If I could eat pad Thai, drunken noodles, or a banging cashew chicken every single day, I 100% would. Literally every city I have lived in or visited, I try to seek out the best spots. If you live in Madison, WI you likely already know that they have some stellar sushi and Thai restaurants (that took all my money when I was in grad school). But RED is a standout. It’s the best sushi I have ever had in the entire world. Their drinks, their specialty menu that changes seasonally, is out of this world good. Ughh I am going to be dreaming about RED until the next time I’m back home.
Kat again! When I was in grad school, I lived within walking distance of Ha Long Bay, and let me tell you…it was dangerous. I ate there weekly, and tried just about every single thing from their menu. The owners knew me by name, and they even knew Mia too. I was a sucker for their pad Thai (extra spicy), and also loved their mango Thai curry. If you ever have the chance to visit Madison, you 100% have to go to Ha Long Bay!
Chicago – Fav Asian Restaurants
Hi! Jess again. Located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, Spoon Thai holds a very special place in my heart and will forever be my favorite Thai food restaurant. It was here that I experienced Thai cuisine for the first time ever (I ordered the massaman curry, I’ll never forget it). Only two blocks from my old apartment, I ate at Spoon at least twice a week for four years and never had a dish that wasn’t fantastic.
Denver – Favorite Asian Restaurants
Kat here! One of the first times my mom came to visit, we wandered into a small hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant called Peter’s Cafe. I had the spicy garlic chicken and was hooked. The flavors, the atmosphere — a 10 out of 10. As our luck would have it, Peter was working that day, and he was by far one of the most hilarious people I have ever met. He talked with us our entire time about his experience owning the restaurant and his love for serving great food. Peter is a gem, but be warned, he can be spicy too! Every time I go to Peter’s it’s always good fun and dynamite food!
Colorado Springs – Favorite Asian Restaurants
Kat again. Na Rai is a ritual for me. I typically get takeout from Na Rai a few times a month, and everything is beyond good. It’s actually the first restaurant I ever tried when I first moved to the Springs! It was the night before my long day of interviewing, and I was seriously hungry. As luck would have it, when I searched restaurants near me, Na Rai was only a quarter-mile from my hotel. I’m not saying that Na Rai is responsible for me moving to CO, but it certainly helped. Their fried tofu, spring rolls, pad Thai, and short ribs are mouthwateringly delicious.
Northern California – Fav Asian Restaurants
Em here! And friends, this post already warms my heart so much. I could really open a can of worms attempting to cover all my favorite Asian-owned spots in Northern California — specifically the Greater Bay Area — so I’m just going to stick with the smaller local spots that, over the years, have earned a place in our hearts (and our home — thanks takeout!).
Asian Kings Kitchen (Half Moon Bay)
Not sure how our tiny town got so lucky with this gem, but they serve the tastiest, most unassuming Chinese food that never fails to leave me feeling nostalgic. Excellent lunch specials, super fried rice, and the orange chicken (which, honestly, is not something I would usually think to order) is super crisp and fresh with a lightly-sweet, fresh orange flavor that isn’t at all cloying. Another favorite is the black bean fish and the dry fried string beans, but honestly, everything is excellent. (It’s also right on Highway 1 if you’re ever just passing through!) Full menu here; call-in your order at (650) 560-9898.
Panda Dumpling (San Carlos, CA)
We used to live walking distance to this little mom & pop spot, and it was one of my favorite places to take baby Lana for lunch. (She fondly remembers one of the owners “booping” her on the nose every time we came in.) The soup dumplings are rad, and the hedgehog buns (filled with smooth sweet beans) are always a hit with kids. Menu here; order by phone at (650) 593-8888.
Town of Dumpling (San Mateo, CA)
Sensing a theme here? We REALLY like dumplings. This tiny spot has amazing homestyle dumplings, and you can even buy big bagfuls of them frozen to go. (If you’ve been so fortunate to walk past the kitchen en route to the restroom, you can see the big metal bowls full of filling (literally the size of a small satellite dish) and the dumplings being stuffed by hand. We always get the soup dumplings, the pork and corn dumplings, chive pancakes and the garlic broccoli.
Viet Ha (Sacramento, CA)
I could really go down the rabbit hole in my hometown of Sac, but I’ll stick with the spots we hit up every single time we’re in town. Viet Ha does SUPER delicious vietnamese food in a customizable, fast-casual concept. Their crispy fried salt + pepper chicken wings are worth eating meat for (I’ve been trying to cut back, so this is a true testament) and their crispy tofu (which you can get in a cool, crunchy salad bowl or banh mi sandwich) is crave-worthy.
Osaka-Ya (Sacramento, CA)
This seasonal spot for authentic shave ice is also a tiny Japanese market specializing in fresh mochi and manju (they also have bentos and sushi to-go). As a kid, I loved buying trays of peanut butter mochi; Lana’s apparently got a more sophisticated palate and prefers the green (mugwort leaf) mochi with smooth, sweet red bean filling. If you do go during the summer when the shave ice window is open, my favorite order is the kintoki with green tea ice cream; Lana and my mom go for the root beer with vanilla ice cream.
Encha Matcha (Bay Area-based, available nationwide)
OK, I know this one isn’t technically a restaurant, but it’s worth noting that my favorite daily ritual, matcha, is made possible thanks to an Asian-owned, local Bay Area business: Encha Matcha. I’ve extolled the virtues of Encha before, but if you’re new here, this is easily my matcha of choice, thanks to both the mild, nutty flavor (it doesn’t have the bitterness that some people associate with matcha) and the cheery, verdant color. (I’m even baking a cake with it as we speak!) It’s no more expensive than an artisanal coffee habit, either. Available on Amazon (which is actually the owner’s preference, as a close friend recently confirmed) or direct through the Encha site. I use the “latte grade.”
The Triangle Area, NC – Fav Asian Restaurants
Lex again…since everyone else is getting all nostalgic, I had to jump in with my fav Asian-American dining spots — as in multiple times a month — from North Carolina. Not ALL of them, but my two standbys.
OK — so this place is a Chinese restaurant that also has a DANCE FLOOR. In my 20s, it couldn’t get any better than that — because it’s also hands-down, my all-time favorite dance floor (it’s small, y’all). Named after the owner’s grandfather (a 5-star general, read the story here), it was tucked into the warehouse district next to the railroad tracks. I highly recommend the Sesame Beef. I’d get it for dinner, and then have the leftovers for breakfast. The rice was perfection. It looks like they have tables outdoors now, as well as curbside pickup and contactless delivery.
My friend Sarah and I spent many an evening here — as well as other friends and anyone who came to visit when I lived in Durham. My fave dish was the Drunken Noodles, which, again, I would eat for dinner with leftovers for breakfast. When dining in, I often ordered the Red Curry Duck, and since then, outside of SE Asia, I have yet to find a Red Curry Duck that good. Read about the restaurant here, and find the menu here. There’s also a Wake Forest location now, too.