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An ode to the culinary diversity of Columbia's Asian American community

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It is with great shame that I admit that it was only in recent years that I came to know that May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Created shortly after the country’s bicentennial celebrations in the 1970s, it was proposed to celebrate Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans’ history and contributions to the United States.

In that spirit, I took a look around to see how much the Asian community has grown in the 15 years I’ve lived here. Admittedly, for a newcomer to the city, it’s not an easy community to fully pinpoint compared to larger cities that have areas where such groups have converged neatly.

There were pockets here and there when I got here, though, like the Korean community that remains a fixture of the Decker Boulevard area.

“There were maybe four [Korean] families before I moved here, and then 10 or so after,” says Unger Kim, owner of Hyundai Market. Kim came to Columbia in 1976. It wouldn’t be until the ‘90s when he and his family saw that there was a market large enough to support a Korean grocery store.

On the opposite side of town, there’s Bi and Yi Feng’s Asian Market near Dutch Square Center. I remember when it was located a block behind where it is today, in a nearly abandoned strip mall you’d think no one could succeed in. They not only beat the odds, but became one of the biggest international stores in town, a fixture for everyone from locals to international university students seeking a taste of home.

I was particularly struck recently by the longevity of so many local Asian restaurants, which have become staples in the same vein as Southern institutions like Drake’s, Little Pigs and other equally loved establishments.

“When we had it, it was an empty lot,” said chef Alex Suaudom du Monde about Baan Sawan in an interview with Free Times back in 2017. His family has owned the Five Points restaurant since 1999. ”It is a mom and pop joint for sure. My brother takes care of the front. Besides being an excellent cook himself, his wine and beer knowledge is absolutely insane. The kitchen is just me and my parents. We don’t even have a dishwasher.”

Baan Sawan is one of the best examples of how some of these Asian restaurants have evolved to keep up with the times. Originally opening as a very strict Thai restaurant. It has grown into a mix between tradition and playful twists — like the Tom Kha Matz variation on matzo ball soup or sous vide pork rib curry — that keep customers coming back for more.

The list of Asian restaurants that have become a part of the city’s fabric for well over a decade is endless. Sun Ming, two Inakayas, a whole bunch of Miyo’s, Camon, Sakura Japanese Restaurant, Delhi Palace, Eggroll Chen, O Bok and Pho Viet are but a handful of the many resilient restaurants that have helped make Columbia a quietly great international food city.

It’s hard not to take a moment in a piece such as this to remember Blue Cactus, which closed last year after more than 20 years. Would half of us even know what a bibimbap was without the restaurant’s arrogantly slow service?

Then there are the families who have evolved and created new restaurants through the years.

Sally Wu and her husband have started a fast-casual staple in the city with their bowl offerings at Freshe Poke, which now has three locations. While Freshe Poke is a modern day favorite, the couple ran an Asian fusion restaurant in Lexington for years before turning their interest to the poke craze. Freshe Poke was the result of a year spent traveling and investigating the hot trend sweeping large cities. It was a concept that could have landed anywhere, but they chose here.

“We really wanted to open a poke place here to cater to the people in this area,” Wu told Free Times in an interview back in 2018, when they first launched the business. “We’re from here and we went to school at USC, also. So we have a lot of friends and family here, so we wanted to stay here and open it here.”

Equally connected to the community is Noi Souvanna, who quietly owned Five Points late night staple Grilled Teriyaki for years before branching out to Cayce with Duke’s Pad Thai, a bright, fun street food restaurant that quickly earned a following.

Indeed, many newcomers on the scene turn out to not be so new after all.

Chef Nivit Tipvaree’s expressive plating and refined cooking at his restaurant Bodhi Thai Dining in Lexington have earned ample praise. But what many might not know about are the experienced restaurateurs helping him run the business — specifically his parents, who previously ran local establishments like Thai Lotus before deciding to pass the torch to Tipvaree.

Sunshine Cobb, owner of Kao Thai and a longtime resident of the city, comes from a restaurant family that has opened and operated restaurants in Asheville and Greenville. It was Cobb’s belief in South Carolina’s capital city that helped convince her family to introduce Kao Thai to the Vista in 2019. The success of neighbors 929 Kitchen & Bar and Menkoi Ramen House have only solidified Cobb’s enthusiasm.

“If you are living in Columbia, you really can tell it’s about to blow up,” she says.

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