Calling All Hungry Tigers

AAPI Heritage Month celebrates culture, cuisine, and community

Photography by Ziggy Mack. Illustration by Erin Siao.

You can tell a lot about a city by its food—not only what it’s known for (say, BBQ) or what the locals think the city should be known for (like hot wings), but also what else people eat and where they eat it. The concentration of restaurants by cuisine and neighborhood tells a story. 

Take, for instance, the array of Vietnamese restaurants on and around Cleveland Street. They’re holdovers from Vietnamese refugee resettlement beginning after the fall of Saigon in 1975. “Little Hanoi” continues the legacy of earlier waves of Vietnamese immigrants. There’s Viet Hoa Market, which has been in operation since 1985 and in its current location since 2002. Then there’s the connection to restaurants past, like the family ties between Saigon Le (closed in 2016) and Tuyen’s Asian Bistro (established in 2022).

Further back in time and in a different part of town, there is the remnant of another migration story. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, there were Chinese restaurants and Chinese-owned grocery stores on Beale Street. Their existence—and then disappearance—was an economic outcome shaped by immigration policies and racism. Without the historical marker on Beale near South Fourth Street memorializing Chop Suey Café, you might never know the business—or even Chinese people—existed in Memphis during that time. The marker includes this morsel of food history: “Chop Suey is actually an American dish created by early Chinese immigrants in the 1800s for gold miners in California. It is a stir-fried mixture of vegetables and meat in a starchy soy sauce served over rice.”

AAPI Heritage Month Happy Hour at GoodfortuneCo on Tuesday, May 9, 2023.

“Chop suey” is edible history. Similar stories are being served in countless restaurants scattered throughout our city.

Food tells the story of community and culture, of where we’ve been and where we are. Food also tells the story of who we are.

And now to how the Hungry Tiger Food Tour began:

It was the spring of 2021 when my friend and artist Erin Siao and I first began developing an idea for an Asian restaurant week. As COVID-19 continued to expose the inequities in our society and how Asians in America have always been perceived as foreigners (our food alternating between desirably exotic and undesirably alien), we looked for ways to find comfort. Food often provides solace, not only through what we eat but in where we eat it. During the pandemic, how we experienced food changed. Rather than a communal experience, food became another source of isolation. Yet, we continued to feel a need for connection and community, particularly in the face of continued anti-Asian attacks.

A restaurant week highlighting Asian food and our Asian community was one way to foster connection.

When Erin moved out of town, married, and had a baby, we put our plans on temporary hold, but our love of Memphis, food, and one another remained.

When I began thinking about founding an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in Memphis, I knew Erin had to be involved and food had to be a part of the celebration. For a city that had not had a full month-long acknowledgment of AAPI Heritage Month, food seemed like a low-stakes way to invite folks to learn more about the month, our city, and each other. With the idea of a food tour taking shape, we asked if Edible Memphis would join us for some good eats. Together we cooked up the 2023 Hungry Tiger Food Tour, a delectable collab to highlight nine locally owned Asian restaurants.

The tour kicked off with a happy hour at Good Fortune that set the tone for the month-long feast. Flexing the creativity that Good Fortune is known for, Sarah Cai, Arturo Leighton, and the team created a spectacular spread of deliciousness, highlighting a vast range of Asian flavors. By the end of the night, we were sipping from fresh coconuts and Arturo brought out a durian. A pungent fruit with a buttery flesh, durian is not something you’re likely to find on a Memphis menu.

At Vietnam Restaurant, we enjoyed a variety of pho. Folks were delighted to learn that although you won’t find banh mi on the menu, the classic baguette sandwich filled with meat and vegetables is often available. Banh mi is another edible piece of food history, holding the story of French colonization and Vietnamese innovation.

While most of our planning happened virtually, Erin made it to town in time for the Asian American in the South art show and a meal at East Meets West. (Erin was a featured artist in the show and the creator of our eye-catching graphics for the month.) Over an assortment of items from the Chinese and Taiwanese side of the menu—beef noodle soup, salt prawns, napa cabbage and mushrooms, eggplant with basil —we went over final details for the month.

The Hungry Tiger made its final stop at Mosa Asian Bistro, another restaurant that is a living monument of Memphis food history. Shortly after immigrating from Taiwan to the US in 1977, Eddie Pao opened Formosa on Summer Avenue. He continues to serve fresh, scratch-made dishes and house-made sauces at Mosa in East Memphis with Michelle Pao-Levine and Alex Pao—his children and co-owners. I could not think of a better way to close out the Hungry Tiger Food Tour than at one of my favorite Memphis restaurants. True to the goals of the tour, it was some folks’ first time at Mosa, several folks’ first time learning about AAPI Heritage Month, and one attendee’s first time using chopsticks. Over spring rolls, potstickers, Asian sliders, hot-and-sour soup, and a selection of rice and noodle dishes, people were able to connect and be curious together.

Although the month had to come to a close, my love of food and exploring local eats will never end. This year began with the launch of the Hungry Tiger Food Club, a monthly informal food meetup for people who love food. Each month a group of folks—friends, strangers, social media e-quaintances meeting “IRL” for the first time—gather at a locally owned restaurant to share food and camaraderie. It’s a time to disconnect from our routines and our phones and savor a delicious moment in community.

This May brings more opportunities to join the food adventure. AAPI Heritage Month Memphis’s Hungry Tiger Food Tour with Edible Memphis will take you on a tasty trek around town to restaurants showcasing some of our Memphis Asian ethnic communities. We’ll visit long-standing staples and more recent additions, and hopefully introduce you to a new-to-you favorite. If you’ve been looking for a reason to check out local eats or a way to connect with other folks in our community, this is for you! Each week throughout the month we’ll meet up for one dinner and a Friday lunch. For more details, visit thehungrytigermemphis.com.

SunAh Laybourn is a food lover, plant person, and avid reader. She’s the host of WYXR Memphis’s radio show Let’s Grab Coffee, University of Memphis sociology professor, and organizer of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Memphis. She’s the author of Out of Place: The Lives of Korean Adoptee Immigrants. @sunahmarieonly

Ziggy Mack is an internationally published photographer about town. When not immortalizing the movements of ballerinas, circus performers, and mermaids, he spends his time finding candid moments involving delectable cuisines and the people that create them. @fomoloop

Erin Siao is a freelance illustrator specializing in portraits and local vignettes of place and taste. She works with local and national publications, brands, and individuals to capture stories in her unique style. She has a passion to understand neighborhood faces working to strengthen communities for the better. @inkandkimchi_