Featured photo: From left, Kai Phillips, Leo Phillips, James Phillips and Mari Phillips at their restaurant Don Express in Winston-Salem, N.C. on June 16, 2022. (photo by Juliet Coen)
The sound of the cicadas rings through the humidity-laden air as women and children stroll by in colorful summertime kimonos, or yukatas. At a nearby stall, parents watch intently as their children attempt to catch goldfish out of a plastic pool with little paper scoops, sighing as the fish break through the soggy surfaces at the last second. Around the corner, a strong waft of umami emanates from piles of yakisoba topped with lumps of grilled pork, thinly sliced cabbage and a garnish of katsuobushi that sways gently in the breeze.
This is summer in Japan.
As families prepare to gather in celebration of their time off from school and work in Japan these next few months, thousands of miles away, in a drab, old shopping center in Winston-Salem, Mari Phillips will be offering her own natsu flavors.
“I’m originally from Tokyo,” Phillips says. “I came here in 1999.”
She met her husband James, while he was in the Navy; they moved to Winston-Salem after getting married. When she first came stateside, Phillips experienced culture shock.
“There weren’t a lot of Japanese restaurants owned by Japanese people,” she says.
Plus, she says, the level of customer service here was lacking, in her opinion.
“It was very disappointing compared to Japan,” says Phillips, who worked in customer service back in Japan. “I thought, Maybe I could do a little bit better.”
After working for Aramark for years, Phillips was encouraged by her son Kai, to open her own food business. That was the beginning of Don Express, which started as a food truck in 2019. Now, a little less than three years later, Phillips and her family have transitioned into a brick-and-mortar location in a little spot behind the Arby’s off of Knollwood Street.
As Phillips describes the menu, her husband James cuts checks at the counter while her younger son Leo wipes the windows in preparation for the evening. Her older son Kai, prepares food at the grill. It’s a family affair, and it’s reflected in the restaurant’s homey menu, featuring an amalgamation of classic Japanese street eats. It’s got yakisoba; okonomiyaki, aka savory pancakes; takoyaki, or fried octopus balls; gyoza; a variety of ramen; different kinds of rice bowls and bento boxes. And in a landscape in which Japanese food means either sushi or hibachi, Don Express’ variety and focus on street food is a welcome diversion.
“This is the third wave,” Phillips says. “The first wave was Benihana style, second was sushi. And this is Japanese street food. It started with ramen. Ten years ago, nobody knew about ramen.”
For her sons, the food on Don’s menu is a reflection of the kind of food their mom would make at home.
“I felt like it was something that you couldn’t get anywhere else,” Kai says. “When it comes to Japanese food, there’s very limited options. There’s a lot of things that my mom made that opened my mind up to different things and I encouraged her to let other people try our culture from a different perspective.”
Her husband agrees.
“Everything is unique,” he says. “You can’t get it anywhere else.”
Right now is a good time to open this kind of restaurant, Phillips says, because there’s an increasing curiosity about Asian cultures.
“My son is from the Naruto era,” Phillips says. “Anime is becoming really popular. So that was good timing.”
Still, she says she worries that Japanese-owned restaurants will dwindle in numbers in the next few decades. Phillips points out that many businesses that serve Japanese food aren’t actually run by Japanese families.
“Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans like to use Japanese names,” she says. “They have good cuisines too, but I think they know that Japanese food makes good money.”
That’s why she wants to make sure she’s making traditional Japanese food using authentic recipes. And it’s paying off.
“A lot of our customers are Japanese or they speak Japanese so they know about Japanese food,” she says. “We built a lot of the menu based on customer requests.”
Currently the restaurant is open for limited hours during the week and extended hours on weekends. Short-term goals include making bento boxes that people can grab from the cold case and adding new menu items like onigiri. Eventually Phillips has dreams of opening a sake brewery.
“But first, we gotta do this one,” Phillips laughs.
Visit Don Express at 472 Knollwood St. in Winston-Salem. Hours are Thursday-Saturday from 12-2:30 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram at @don_express_llc
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