By GINNA PARSONS / NEMS Daily Journal
In 1974, Chi Kwong To and his wife, Choy-Moon, moved their family from Gulfport to Tupelo to open the city’s first Chinese restaurant.
Because the concept was new to the area, the couple included American fare, such as steaks and pork chops, on the menu, and named their business Sun-Kai Chinese-American Restaurant.
Today, the restaurant in east Tupelo is one of at least 16 eateries in town that serve Asian-inspired food. Six of those – Kyoto, China Garden, Peking, Mt. Fuji, Mist and Panda – have opened in the past two years.
“We were going to come here before Kyoto, but they beat us to it,” said Haiwei Zhou, manager at Mt. Fuji Sushi and Hibachi Grill on North Gloster. “We waited a while to see how they were doing. They seemed to be doing well so we decided to go ahead.
“Asian restaurants usually wait until one is open for a little while and see how they do. We don’t all want to open at one time or we’d all go bankrupt.”
Zhou predicts that one or two more Asian restaurants will open in the next couple of years as the area prepares for the opening of the Toyota plant in Blue Springs.
Lisa Hu, who owns China Capital near Crosstown, hopes that’s not the case.
“There’s no room for any more,” said Hu, who operates the second-oldest Chinese restaurant in town. “Tupelo is a small town. Two years ago, there were hardly any.”
Janet To, who now owns and operates Sun-Kai with her daughter Kim, echoed Hu’s sentiments.
“Really and truly, Tupelo can’t afford to have any more Asian restaurants, not if they want to make money,” she said.
The driving forces
So what, other than Toyota, is driving the need for more and more Asian restaurants in Tupelo?
Well, the sushi craze, for one thing.
“I believe we were the first restaurant in Tupelo to serve sushi,” said Jason Mahaffey, the sushi chef at Ichiban Japanese Grill near Crosstown. The restaurant, which started in the old Hunan building, which now houses Peking, opened in January 2001.
“More than half of the people who come in here order sushi as or with their meal,” he said. Sushi is rice with raw or cooked fish over it. “It’s really popular with teens. They come in after school and order it.”
Zhou, of Mt. Fuji, said most Japanese hibachi restaurants are strictly that – restaurants where chefs prepare food for customers table-side on a grill or griddle.
“But ours is half and half – half hibachi grill, half sushi bar – because the sushi is so popular,” he said.
Time is another reason Asian restaurants are popular, especially at lunch. Sushi takes minimal time to roll and stir-fry dishes are prepared quickly over griddles or in woks.
“We try to get people in and out of here so they can get gas or run other errands at lunch before getting back to work,” said Mahaffey of Ichiban.
Hu of China Capital said the buffet she offers at her restaurant is a big draw for customers, who can be in and out the door in as little as 30 minutes.
“A lot of people, they eat the buffet,” she said. “But some, they still order from the menu. We have good food. It’s quick. The restaurant is clean. Customers tell me that.”
So, who’s eating in these restaurants?
“We have teens, families with small children, businessmen,” said To, describing Sun-Kai’s customers. “With the lunch crowd you’re getting people from the hospital, from Reeds Manufacturing, from Cooper Tire.
“And we have a lot of regulars. Some of them, they go to Kyoto or Mt. Fuji, where they put on a show at the hibachi grill. They go try it, but they always come back to us.”
Mahaffey at Ichiban said his restaurant sees a wide variety of customers, including judges, police officers, firefighters, families and teenagers.
“The kids used to go to diners and drive-ins after school and now they come here,” he said. “They may order the crispy shrimp, but that’s way better than greasy fries.”
Zhou of Mt. Fuji said the greatest testament to the food prepared at his restaurant are the Japanese businessmen from Toyota who dine there regularly.
“When you get Japanese come in a Japanese restaurant and they’re repeat customers, you’re doing something right.”
Contact Ginna Parsons at (662) 678-1581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.