The number of Asian identifying people in the U.S. in the past 20 years has increased dramatically. According to recent census data, Asians are now the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. In Johnson City, the Asian population only makes up 2.5 percent of the general population, while this percentage is higher than the state average of 1.61 percent, it is still significantly smaller than the white population (86.6 percent) or the black population (7.02 percent) of Johnson City, Tennessee.
In Johnson City alone, there are over 200 restaurants, and of these restaurants, at least 20 are Asian style cuisine. Most of these restaurants are owned and operated by an Asian-based staff excited to share their respective countries' delicacies.
Chao Wang has been the proud proprietor of the Magic Wok eatery, tucked into the corner of downtown Johnson City for five years. Before he took over the restaurant in 2016, his uncle owned and ran the business for 25 years. While the storefront itself is unassuming, the vastness of the menu housed in its walls is astounding.
While the business does have a traditional Chinese menu, to cater to a wider variety of people, the restaurant offers a second menu.
“One menu is an American style Chinese food, and the other is a traditional Chinese menu,” said Wang. “We started the authentic menu about ten years ago, but in the beginning not many people were interested in the authentic menu because they didn’t know what it was.”
The American menu is filled with familiar dishes like orange chicken, an entree with an orange-based chili sauce caramelized into a glaze, and General Tso's chicken, a sweet and spicy dish with a flavorful kick of ginger in the glaze. Wang pointed out that many of the American style dishes are covered in a heavy sauce, which is vastly different from the drier traditional dishes.
“The main difference in the American based menu is the sauces- general Tso’s, white, and brown,” said Wang, “whereas the authentic menu does not have any sauce.”
Another restaurant trying its hand at mixing cultural menus is Ming’s Asian Cuisine. While Ming’s also does not look like much from the storefront, once inside, the restaurant opens into an expansive dining room with a full-service bar along the back. The atmosphere is warm and relaxing, and the servers immediately call out, “Hello!” when the door chimes.
Ming’s Asian Cuisine offers a “fusion” cuisine. This is a blend of flavors and techniques from diverse cultures. Ming’s specifically blends the styles of Chinese and Japanese cooking, which includes a sushi and a sashimi menu.
Sophie Chen has served at Ming’s Asian Cuisine for three years now. When asked her favorite dish her answer was fast; The Phoenix Roll. This sushi contains crispy tempura shrimp, cream cheese, imitation crab and avocado and is topped with an orange spicy mayonnaise and honey fire sauce.
Ming’s Asian Cuisine also offers a variety of traditional Chinese dishes such as the Mongolian Beef, thin sliced and stir-fried in a pan with chopped garlic, green scallions and red onion. Like Magic Wok, Ming’s Asian Cuisine also has some “Americanized” dishes on its menu like the Kung Pao Chicken, a stir fried dish known for its spicy kick, filled with scallions, chili pepper flakes and peanuts, topped with a kung pao sauce.
Tomy Thai has a more authentic approach with its menu. There is a heavy focus on the traditional flavors of Thailand to give their customers an authentic Thai dining experience. The understated dining area is quaint and modestly decorated. The menu is inlaid with peanuts, ginger and bean sprouts, all traditional flavors to Thai cuisine.
Leah Durnin has worked as a host at Tomy Thai for four years. Durnin is from the area, unlike her boss, Touty Oudom, who originally lived in Laos, a country in Southeast Asia, before traveling to Thailand and eventually settling in America. Many of the dishes on the menu are family recipes from Oudom’s mother. Durnin recommended the dish phat see-ew, a pan-fried crispy noodle dish with coarsely chopped vegetables in a sweet ginger, soy sauce.
Many Asian style restaurants only have one location. Wang attributes this to quality. “It is hard because Chinese restaurants are not like other places that can have multiple locations,” said Wang. “If you want to cook good stuff, you need a good chef and that’s hard finding, but if you do not have a good chef at each location, you cannot open more.”
Make sure to stop by each of these locations and show these Asian style restaurants some American style love.
Magic Wok is located at 701 S. Roan Street.
Ming’s Asian Cuisine is located at 1045 Hamilton Place Drive.
Tomy Thai is located at 1736 W. State of Franklin Road.