Exploring the diverse (traditional and fusion-style) Asian food in our neighborhood.
By Jessica Jewel Tyler
Photos by JPG Photo & Video (jpgphotography.com)
Ginger, garlic, sesame, and soy — these ingredients are synonymous with the distinctive (and delicious) Asian flavor profile. But, each region in Asia has its own long, rich history of food and unique flavor, making it the perfect foodie destination. Let’s take a tour through some of our favorites, but pack light because we won’t leave the city.
Main Street Pho is revolutionizing Vietnamese food in Philadelphia and owner, Charles Dang, takes pride in sharing authentic flavors from his birthplace. Charles came to America at 14-years-old and started working as a server. He enjoyed Chinese and Vietnamese food and even ate a bowl of pho every week! But there was one issue.
“I was a picky eater, so I started cooking for myself,” Charles stated. “It became my passion.”
Charles turned his passion into a restaurant with a focus on Vietnamese light eating and bold Chinese stir-fry. Charles says the two go hand-in-hand because stir-fry in Vietnam is “heavily influenced by Chinese flavor.”
A popular ingredient in Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cuisine, that sets it apart is lemongrass. This light, minty citrus herb has the tang of lemon without the bitterness. The biggest differentiator to Charles is raw vegetables and herbs that accompany your meal.
“Bean sprouts, for instance, give a fresh flavor and different texture,” Charles said. “The combination brings it to a different level.”
Charles also commented on the French influence seen in dishes like grape leaves, beef stew, and trendy favorite — Vietnamese coffee.
“We took dark French coffee and blended it with sweet condensed milk into a new sensation,” Charles expressed.
Vietnam is also known for its flavorful bánh mìs with crunchy vegetables and succulent grilled proteins on a french baguette. The owner of Mi ‘N Tea, Kim Dieu, said the key is freshness.
“In Vietnam, they go to the market to buy ingredients for one meal,” Kim stated. “It’s about cooking with care instead of getting food on the table. Time is saved for food because quality is important for flavor.”
At this family restaurant, the philosophy remains. When Kim’s parents (Kiem Tran and Dan Dieu) came from Vietnam, they brought a passion for food. So, their children worked together to make their dreams come true.
Kim tackles marketing, her brother, Troy, handles sales, and her parents cook. The sibling duo adds fun menu ideas, but “tries not to get in the way too much.”
“Three-quarters of the sandwiches come from my parent’s authentic recipes,” Kim explained. “The other part incorporates modern fusion.”
The secret to traditional Vietnamese recipes is replacing salt with fish sauce for a complex savory, sweet salt flavor. However, their fusion sandwiches use ingredients like Korean-style Bulgogi beef, Japanese-style deep-fried filet mignon, and crispy fried shrimp. The authenticity and forward-thinking of the menu makes the family proud.
“We wanted to be trendy, but our customers also love our traditional grilled meats,” Kim expressed. “It’s amazing to see my parents praised for their cooking because everyone thinks their mom makes the best food — I actually get proof.”
One popular option is lemongrass pork, which to Kim, “feels like home.” Kim also offers bubble tea inspired by the popularity of the sandwich and tea combination in California.
Five hundred miles to the west, we reach Thailand, birthplace of the chef and owner of Chabaa Thai Bistro and Yanako, Moon Krapugthong. Originally trained as an economist, Moon had a benign cancer scare spark a photo documenting journey. Photography school then led to a lifelong love of art, and unexpectedly, cooking.
“I loved seeing my colleagues spending time together because of my food,” Moon expressed. “When you add food, it becomes a party. So, I practiced and learned I enjoyed it.”
Her restaurants now give Moon a stage for art and food. Growing up in Bangkok, Moon, helped her father prepare meals, so Thai food came naturally. Although, she’s taken many paths, cooking stuck.
Thai food is about balance — salty, sweet, spicy, and sour come together to make something “creative, colorful, and light-hearted.” According to Moon, this balance also comes from centuries of multi-ethnic collaboration.
“Thai people have incorporated flavors from India, Japan, China, and French desserts, and now, our cuisine is uniquely ours and it’s so rich,” affirmed Moon. “For example, Sukiyaki is influenced by Japanese shabu shabu.”
The Japanese soup uses a fish stock, but the Thai version uses herbal pork or chicken broth with a spicy dipping sauce. Moon also spoke about curries.
“Our curries use fundamental Indian ingredients like chili pepper and dried herbs, but we use shrimp paste, lemongrass, kakafi lime, and galangal and it becomes fresher,” Moon explained.
Galangal is an important ingredient in Thai food. This turmeric and ginger relative adds sharp, spicy, peppery flavor that shines in dishes like tom yum soup. Tom yum is the “foundation of Thai cooking,” according to Moon, because you have to balance the distinct hot and sour flavors Thailand is known for. Moon also features Japanese food, like sushi, at Yanako.
Next, we’ll head north to China. Hong Kong native and the chef/owner of New Leaf II, Terry Yeung, holds a deep appreciation for his nation’s food.
“Hong Kong is a food fair,” Terry explained. “From roadside stalls to world-class restaurants, there’s a variety of choices.”
Terry came to America at 17-years-old and couldn’t find flavors like those of his home country. So, while working in a restaurant, he took up cooking. There are still differences between authentic Hong Kong cuisine and American fusion, but New Leaf II offers both.
“Asian chefs saute noodle dishes in a dry style, but our audience likes complementing their meals with sauce,“ Terry stated. “So, we would add a savory soy sauce or for the wok-fried shrimp, a spicy mayo.”
The wok-fried shrimp is a crowd favorite (and Terry’s). The combination of traditional sweet and smoky XO sauce and American spicy mayo is truly unique.
New Leaf II does classic American takeout just right, like the top-selling, General Tso’s chicken. If you want something authentic, try the chef’s special menu — most customers come back for more once they try it! The secret is the seasonings in the house-made sauces.
“Most of our seasonings are imported from China or Japan — you wouldn’t find them in your supermarket,” Terry laughed. “Our sushi soy sauce and vinegar are imported from Japan and the soy sauce for our fried rice is from Germany.”
New Leaf II also features Japanese food, like awe-inspiring sushi boats and fusion-style sushi pizza.
Eddie Huang, sushi chef at Manayunk Brewing Company, spoke more about Japanese food. Eddie was born in China and went to Japan in 1989. While working in a restaurant, he became passionate about food, especially sushi.
“I love sushi because it’s natural,” Eddie said. “It’s straight from the water.”
Eddie is a disciplined chef who focuses on fresh, quality ingredients. Manayunk Brewing Company sources high grades of fresh fish and pays the utmost attention to storing ingredients properly, which Eddie said is key.
Eddie features a wide variety. The “regular rolls’’ are American favorites, like shrimp, yellowtail, and Eddie’s favorite, tuna. Here, diners will also find the Japanese-American shrimp tempura roll, known for its crispy texture, mouthwatering shrimp, and kabayaki sauce (eel sauce made with sake and sugar).
The “regular roll” menu also playfully tours how Americans have adapted sushi based on available ingredients. For example, the Philadelphia roll is made with smoked salmon and cream cheese, the Boston roll uses poached shrimp, the Alaska roll uses salmon, and the California is known for crab stick. The “special roll” menu, however, comes from experimentation.
“I love trying new things and testing them on staff members,” Eddie added. “I mix things up every few months by finding new traditional ingredients and non-traditional ones, like mango and jalapeño.”
This collaboration results in creative dishes like self-named, “Chef Eddie’s special roll,” made with spicy tuna and jalapeño, rolled in soybean paper, topped with white tuna and salmon.
Last stop, Korea. Owner of Tsaocaa Manayunk, Andrew Chang, is Chinese-American but has had a big Korean influence because of his neighbors and friends from church.
“I love the culture and it just tastes good at the end of the day,” stated Andrew.
Andrew’s mother owned a full-scale restaurant in Chinatown. Andrew, however, wanted to focus on something universal — chicken — bone-in, bone-out, and on a bun (and yes, Tsaocaa plans to dominate the “chicken sandwich wars.”) Korean fried chicken is the focus, but he doesn’t discriminate.
“I grew up with football and wings,” Andrew asserted. “I love buffalo wings so much, I put them on the menu. They’re simple, relatable, and reminiscent.”
Andrew relates to customers with local, quality ingredients most people can enjoy. He uses 100% halal chicken with fresh brioche buns and keeps sandwich toppings simple — mayo and pickles.
The beauty is the simplicity of it. The secret is the technique. Andrew says marinated dark meat is most flavorful and the double-fry is key.
“We bread three times — dry, wet, dry — fry it, lift it, and fry it again,” Andrew explained. “The cook time is a bit longer, but it’s worth it. Fried chicken is iconic. I’m taking it up a notch by adding a tasty crispy layering.”
The “regular spicy” sandwich has a flavor between garlic and gochujang. This fundamental Korean ingredient is known for its spicy, sweet complex flavor. Its recent popularity makes Andrew proud of the advancements of Asian cuisine in America.
Andrew’s appreciation for Korean, and other types of Asian food and culture, inspire him to always do better. He “respects the beautiful flavors” and simply does everything possible to make his customers “feel good about eating amazing quality fried chicken.” Tsaocaa also makes bubble tea and Japanese snacks like takoyaki and pan-fried gyoza.
Once you check out Laxmi’s Indian Grille, our Manayunk Asian food tour is complete. For more international cuisine, try Middle Eastern at Smiley’s Cafe, Mediterranean at Zesty’s, Italian at Pizzeria L’Angolo, Spanish tapas at Artesano Cafe and Bistro, and Mexican at Taqueria Amor, La Roca, and Cactus Cantina.