The first Chinese restaurant in the United States, the Canton Restaurant, opened in San Francisco in 1849. Since then, Asian immigrants and their descendants have helped transform North America’s dining scenes into some of the most dynamic in the world.
Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in May, gives us a chance to celebrate the contributions of the AAPI community and recognize how pivotal they’ve been in shaping the dining landscape in North America. The past two years have been a particularly difficult time for the AAPI community; those in the restaurant industry have had to contend not only with the business downturn caused by the pandemic, but also with a massive rise in violence and incidents of hate. Stop AAPI Hate, the national coalition that’s been tracking this uptick, recorded 10,905 self-reported incidents of hate between March 2020 and December 2021.
With that in mind, OpenTable is highlighting 11 dishes and restaurants across the U.S. and Canada that showcase the depth and breadth of the cuisines within the AAPI community. The chefs behind these dishes have been inspired by their families and communities, their travels across the world, and the seasonality within their own cities. In that process, they’ve created food that resonates within communities and showcases their pride. Read on for 11 dishes that tell the story of Asian pride at restaurants.
Sushi taco at Edoko Omakase
Deep in the Dallas suburbs lies a hidden-treasure omakase sushi restaurant where chef Keunsik Lee draws a crowd every night of the week. He’s serving up some of the best sushi for miles, including his signature recipe, the sushi taco.
Though the restaurant, Edoko Omakase, is Japanese, Lee, who hails from Korea, loves to incorporate nods to various cultures, including his own. His sushi taco showcases fresh tuna; micro cilantro; wasabi aioli; and “kimchi de gallo,” pico de gallo with kimchi instead of onion—a taste of Korea, Japan, and Mexico all in one bite.
Before moving to the United States, Lee had never eaten a taco, but working in kitchens, he always had Mexican co-workers who shared their homemade food with him. “I started to see the connections among all these cultures,” he says. And so the sushi taco was born. At Edoko, it’s one of the most popular items on the menu.
In 2007, Lee had been living in the U.S. for five years, studying race car engineering. He had no idea that a part-time job he picked up at a sushi restaurant in Fort Worth would lead him to swap engineering for a career as a sushi chef. He went on to work at some of the best Japanese restaurants in the country, including Chicago’s Japonais by Morimoto and Nobu in Dallas. He never could have predicted that Sara Nam, a teenager busing tables at that Fort Worth restaurant, would one day open Edoko Omakase and bring him on as executive chef.
“The restaurant’s identity is Japanese, but a plate that I make can never be 100 percent Japanese,” Lee says “It will always be a tiny bit Korean, too. I take so much pride in that.”
Korean fried chicken at JinBar
Even with a background in fine dining, when it came time to open her own restaurant, celebrated Calgary chef Jinhee Lee knew she wanted to focus on something casual: fried chicken. After a stint back in her native South Korea, Lee returned to Calgary in 2020 to open JinBar, a restaurant that specializes in Korean fried chicken.
Lee’s version is unlike those found at most Korean fried chicken spots: She creates extra-tender pieces of chicken by marinating them overnight before double frying them. The process also ensures that each piece is juicy with an ultra-crispy skin that can be coated in sauces such as sweet honey garlic butter or extra-hot buldak (aka “dragon’s breath”).
“I have a lot of beautiful memories from Korea, having fried chicken with my whole family on my father’s payday or as late-night snacks with high school friends and co-workers,” Lee says. “That’s why I chose the fried chicken for my first restaurant. I want to see my guests making memories with friends and family.”
This move to more casual fare is just another chapter in what has been an unexpected career for Lee. She initially moved to Calgary from Korea in 2006 to seek out a corporate job, but found herself drawn to culinary school. This led to stints in prestigious kitchens like the Vietnamese spot Raw Bar and pan-Asian restaurant Foreign Concept. In 2017, after winning the local round of the prestigious Canadian Culinary Championships, Lee went on to win the national gold medal, positioning herself as one of the most buzzy chefs in the country.
Pinakbet at Musang
Melissa Miranda, chef at Seattle’s beloved restaurant Musang, has created a menu full of Filipino staples with her own creative spins. A dish that best exemplifies this is the pinakbet, a stew similar to gumbo that’s typically prepared with okra, bittermelon, and bagoong, a fermented shrimp paste, among other ingredients. At Musang, all the elements of the stew are reimagined: Miranda fries the okra in a tempura batter, serving it alongside other vegetables such as eggplant and sweet potatoes in a pool of kabocha squash puree. She finishes the dish off with pickled bittermelon slices and dried bagoong.
“The whole vision for this is to be able to create and evolve from what my childhood memory is of this dish,” says Miranda. She grew up eating Filipino staples like lumpia, pancit, and adobo, but dishes that are lesser-known in the U.S., like the pinakbet, were prepared just as regularly at her home. She wanted to share those memories with diners as well.
“I think this dish, especially the version I grew up eating, which is the Tagalog version, gives me a window into so much more of what Filipino food is and can be,” Miranda says. There are a couple of versions of this Filipino dish: The Tagalog version uses shrimp paste made from Krill and Ilocano version uses fermented fish. “Our food has so much history and rich stories when it comes to other dishes.”
Miranda’s community-driven restaurant, which served free meals to those in need throughout the pandemic, is an ode to home cooking. While her dishes aren’t an exact replica of the ones her grandmother taught her, “the elements of the traditional dish are there,” she says. “They’ve just been reimagined. I promise when you take a bite of our pinakbet, you’ll have that Ratatouille moment.”
Tandoori lamb chops at Goa Indian Farm Kitchen
Toronto chef Hemant Bhagwani is a prolific restaurateur and a passionate advocate for hospitality industry issues—he was among the first restaurant owners in the city to take his insurance company to court for denying his COVID-19 losses claim and has championed tipping and fair pay. Bhagwani has undeniably shaped Toronto’s restaurant landscape, opening more than 40 restaurants over the past 20 years, including Indian, Persian, and Burmese establishments.
A standout dish through all those years has been the tandoori lamb chops, a constant at various Bhagwani restaurants right from his first Toronto spot, Kamasutra. The dish is the through line of Bhagwani’s restaurant career in Toronto, and one that showcases his talent for blending the flavors of his heritage with his globally influenced culinary education. He’s proud to have created a dish using flavors he grew up with, he says, especially one that remains a best seller two decades on.
“It combines the best of my French culinary background with Indian spices and herbs,” Bhagwani says. Currently, the lamb is served at his North York restaurant Goa Indian Farm Kitchen.
The chops are marinated in a seasoned oil and then cooked in a tandoor oven before they’re charbroiled over charcoal—“a marriage made in heaven” he says of the smokiness and fattiness that combine. The chops are then dressed in a sauce made with fenugreek leaves, mint, crispy boondi (small balls of fried chickpea flour), and ginger slivers. “The sauce has the acidity to cut through the fattiness of the lamb,” he says. “It’s so beautiful together.”
Hana bento at Hana Japanese Eatery
Lori Hashimoto, chef and co-owner of popular Phoenix BYOB sushi bar Hana Japanese Eatery, has created an environment where diners feel comfortable trying unfamiliar dishes.
“We don’t need to speak the same language or talk at all to share a meal,” she says. “We could just look at each other and feel the same thing.”
She feels this is best represented by the restaurant’s bento box (Hana bento). It typically features nimono, a simmered vegetable dish; six pieces of sashimi; a California roll; and tempura shrimp, vegetables, and herbs including shiso, a Japanese herb with a flavor that’s a cross between basil and cilantro.
“It’s all the things the Japanese want you to see: the color, the reflection, the seasons, the variety,” Hashimoto says, referring to the bento box. “If you look at it deeper, it’s more than food; it’s how you move through life.”
A James Beard Award nominee for best chef in the Southwest, Hashimoto left the pharmaceutical industry to open Hana in 2012. Seeing her stepfather unhappy at a different restaurant, working with ingredients that weren’t familiar to him, made Hashimoto want to open her own place. As third-generation Japanese on her father’s side and first-generation on her mother’s, Hashimoto wanted a restaurant where she could freely express her heritage. “I think my interpretation of Japanese food is the best way that I can make it representable to people who may not eat Japanese food or may not be familiar with [it].”
In addition to her restaurant, Hashimoto conducts Japanese cooking classes on Phoenix’s KTVK lifestyle program, where her goal is to make home cooks intimidated by Japanese food be less so. “If you don’t feel comfortable using the chopsticks, it’s ok, don’t use the chopsticks,” she says. “Just enjoy the experience.”
Elk tartare at Spuntino
When in Denver, sidle up to the warm wooden bar at Spuntino and order the elk tartare. It’s a staple at this rustic Italian spot, and the perfect example of how chef and co-owner Cindhura Reddy has incorporated her Indian heritage and Denver seasonality into Italian cooking techniques.
“It combines the cultures that represent our quirky little restaurant,” Reddy says, who runs the establishment with her husband Elliot Strathmann. “It brings three worlds together that might not otherwise have much in common, all for the goal of something different and delicious.”
She chops local wild Rocky Mountain elk meat and tops it with an aioli featuring her own spice blend that includes garam masala and coriander seeds, a raw ginger and garlic puree, and cilantro. “It’s very much a culinary tradition, especially in Indian cuisine, to complement a game meat with spice,” she says.
Finally the tartare is wrapped in a single piece of elk carpaccio, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt, and placed on a pile of carom seed-studded crackers. Strathmann recommends ordering it with a complementary glass of Italian wine, such as the August Kesseler Riesling Kabinett from Rheingau or a cherry-red rosato called Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo.
“Both Italian and Indian cultures are so much about shared food and creating special moments through food with friends and family,” Reddy adds. “It feels important to share the flavors that I love and grew up with, even if the dish itself isn’t familiar to my childhood.”
Braised tofu at Genting Palace
Located inside the recently opened Resorts World Las Vegas, Genting Palace is a fine-dining Chinese restaurant that features an extensive menu of dim sum, barbecue, Peking duck, and more. But the hidden gem at this high-end spot is a braised dish of tofu and seafood that pays homage to the chef’s mom and is an ode to his childhood memories.
Executive chef Soon Lok Ooi—who is of Chinese descent and has cooked in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, China, Hong Kong, and Berlin during his 33-year career—says that tofu dishes are often referred to as “老少平安” in various parts of Asia, which translates to “safe for all ages.”
Tofu dishes aren’t typically the star attraction at upscale spots of this nature, but Lok Ooi wanted to bring the humble ingredient into the spotlight at Genting Palace. Growing up in a middle-class family with five siblings, Lok Ooi says tofu was much cheaper to cook with compared to other ingredients; his mom purchased it fresh from the market and prepared it in a variety of ways at their home.
At Genting Palace, Lok Ooi braises housemade tofu with scallops, shrimp, and a medley of vegetables including iceberg lettuce and shiitake mushrooms. It’s a classic combination and one of the many traditional methods to cook bean curd, but what sets Lok Ooi’s tofu apart is its extra-silky texture. Lok Ooi takes inspiration from his mom’s method of steaming eggs to obtain that texture for his tofu.
“It reminds me of my mother, and I’m so glad I can share a piece of my childhood with the guests at Genting Palace.”
Poke box at Sukūtā
Robert Lucas Irwin, the great-great-grandson and namesake of the first American legally allowed to marry a Japanese citizen, Iki Takechi, leans on his Japanese-American heritage to make one-of-a-kind sushi rolls, poke, and seasonal bentos at his Washington, D.C. restaurant Sukūtā.
“[It] is a way for me to express my sushi and showcase food that represents me, what I like, and the flavor profiles I learned throughout my career,” the Hawaii-raised chef says of his restaurant.
His career includes stints under culinary greats such as Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Alan Wong and work experience across Hawaii, Palm Beach, and Nantucket. In 2020, he debuted NaRa-Ya, a swanky sushi spot at the Wharf in Washington, D.C. that garnered praise for Irwin’s sashimi preparation and omakase. At Sukūtā, the focus is once again on Japanese food, this time with Irwin’s Hawaiian roots front and center.
Irwin’s poke box best captures this approach.”[It] really does represent a lot about me. Of coming from Hawaii and my travels along the way,” he says. Featuring three kinds of fish—Hawaiian kampachi (amberjack), king salmon, and big-eye tuna—the box also includes sweet potato, yamagobo (pickled) carrots, seaweed salad, and edamame. It’s seasoned with Irwin’s spin on the original Hawaiian-style poke sauce, an umami-packed marinade typically made with shoyu, sesame oil, grated ginger, Hawaiian salt, and chili flakes. “There’s a little more spice to it, thanks to some pickled wasabi root,” he says.
In addition to poke, Irwin recommends trying his Hawaii-inspired rolls. “Sukūtā’s very unique to any other sushi you’ll have anywhere else [in D.C.], especially the rolls,” he says. The kakuni roll, a spicy tuna roll that’s topped with crispy bacon, and the island life roll, with kanai kama (crabsticks), tuna, and crispy shaved wontons, are among his favorites. To Irwin, they’re perfect representations of his individualness and upbringing in Hawaii.
Green curry soup at Thai D-Jing
At Suda Oun-in’s popular restaurant Thai D-Jing in Gretna, just outside of New Orleans, the menu features classic dishes such as pad Thai alongside new creations like ginger salmon in a light fish broth. Oun-in’s favorite, though, is a green curry soup that’s served throughout Thailand in both street food stalls and five star hotels alike. It’s a dish she finds herself craving when she wants something warm and comforting, and when she misses her native Thailand.
“When I think of green curry, there’s no other dish that reminds me more of my homeland,” Oun-in says. “Now that I live in New Orleans, I think it’s the same way that red beans and rice mean so much to locals here. It’s what you grow up with, the food that reminds you most of home.”
The way diners have embraced her restaurant and the dish is meaningful to Oun-in, especially considering she almost didn’t become a chef. The 45-year-old went to law school in Thailand, in part because her family wanted her to, but she never ended up practicing. Instead, she followed her true passion and got a culinary degree from Bangkok’s Dusit Thani College. After working as a hotel banquet chef in Thailand, the Chang Rai native transferred to a Marriott outpost in New Orleans, where she met and married her husband Jeerasak Boonlert.
Thai D-Jing first started as a pop-up at a local farmers’ market. Boonlert and Oun-in capitalized on their success and added a food truck into the mix in 2019. When the pandemic shut down all of the offices along the route, the couple decided to open a full-service restaurant in August 2020 on the west bank of the Mississippi River. And Thai D’Jing’s many regulars have rewarded the move by showing up ever since.
Nam khao at Snackboxe Bistro
For Thip Athakhanh, chef and owner of street food spot Snackboxe Bistro, it’s all about nam khao. Her Laotian restaurant, with two locations just outside of Atlanta, has been making waves with its vibrant dishes since it opened in 2018. The nam khao, a dish made with coconut rice and cured pork wrapped in lettuce, has been a best seller since the restaurant’s debut.
For the dish, Athakhanh makes jasmine rice mixed with grated coconut, red curry paste, makrut lime leaves, and coconut milk. She then shapes the mixture into balls and deep fries them until golden. Once cooled, the balls are broken up into pieces and tossed with cilantro leaves, scallions, lime juice, peanuts, fish sauce, and cured pork—it’s served with crisp lettuce, naturally.
“If you’ve never experienced Lao food, this is the dish we are always excited to recommend,” Athakhanh says. “People instantly fall in love with its citrusy, umami flavors.”
Athakhanh ate nam khao at family celebrations and most associates the dish with lively conversation. These memories are what give the dish a special place in her heart, and she wanted to share it with others. “It’s the dish that inspired me to open Snackboxe Bistro in 2018 and undisputedly put Lao food on the map in Atlanta.”
Imperial spring rolls at Phuc Yea
At Miami Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant Phuc Yea, owner Aniece Meinhold leans into her mom’s home cooking. “I grew up with my mom’s love of Vietnamese dishes, and I find myself constantly recreating them in my kitchen,” she says.
One of those dishes is the crispy imperial rolls made with a variety of meats such as shrimp and pork; vegetables including wood ear mushroom and jicama; and nước chấm, a Vietnamese chili dipping sauce that’s sweet, savory, and spicy all at once. “Any time we had leftovers at home, they somehow always found themselves wrapped inside rice paper,” Meinhold says. She’s partial to spicy food, so she also adds green finger chilis to her version. A hoisin sauce served on the side balances the heat.
Another dish of her mom’s that she’s recreated at the restaurant is the green papaya salad, topped with herbs like cilantro and even more nước chấm. The salad was a childhood staple, and Meinhold says she couldn’t imagine operating a restaurant without it.
Diners looking for a little less heat should opt for Phuc Yea’s summer rolls, Meinhold says. They feature roast pork, shrimp, and rice noodles among other ingredients—it’s a fun cold dish that’s an antidote to Miami’s warm days. “These dishes are a nod to my mom and the traditions we’ve created together in the kitchen when I was a child,” Meinhold says.”I want to share them with diners.”
—Amber Love Bond