Story by Bob Townsend
When Chinese diners visit Decatur’s Taiyo Ramen, sometimes they wonder why the words “Korean Wives” are painted in Chinese on the wall by the bar – an incongruous touch in a ramen restaurant.
It’s a subtle way for Michael Lo and George Yu, second generation Chinese-American business partners, to pay tribute to the women who brought them together and helped inspire their culinary ventures.
Since 2014, Lo and Yu have opened three restaurants around intown Atlanta: Taiyo Ramen (formerly Makan) in Decatur, Suzy Siu’s Baos at Krog Street Market, and Double Dragon in Oakhurst.
Besides presenting contemporary takes on Asian cooking, each restaurant occupies a distinctive place in Atlanta’s ever-changing dining scene. Makan was arguably the first ITP restaurant to regularly offer ramen. When Lo and Yu rebranded the eatery as Taiyo Ramen, they drastically downsized the menu to emphasize the bowls.
Suzy Siu’s food stall offers a trendy, timely focus on Taiwanese-style steamed buns made with local ingredients. Double Dragon is the duo’s most personal and playful place, gleefully delving into the greatest hits of American Chinese menus with the likes of General Tso’s Chicken.
At the end of 2017, Lo and Yu opened their first OTP restaurant, Noona, in Parsons Alley in downtown Duluth. And the duo recently started construction on Ramen Station in the new Larkin on Memorial development in Grant Park.
Recently I sat down at Taiyo with Lo, who oversees the business and front of the house side, and Yu, a chef who has become the company’s culinary director of the company. I asked them about their similar family backgrounds, their shared approach to cooking and why they named their company “Korean Wives Hospitality Group.”
Bob Townsend: You grew up in different parts of the U.S. but in similar ways, right?
Michael Lo: We both grew up with our parents owning Chinese restaurants. And we both worked in them, in that atmosphere of a family business, where the kids hang out in the restaurant, wash dishes, and do prep work, and do homework.
George Yu: Our parents did it because it was a necessity. They needed to make money. We do it because it's something we enjoy doing. We have to pay the bills, too. But it's more creative for us.
Lo: I mostly worked front of the house as a kid. I was an order taker, a waiter, the delivery boy. The only reason I got a car at 16 was so I could make deliveries.
Yu: I started washing dishes at around 7 or 8. My parents built a little wooden stool so I could reach the sprayer. Another job was pressing the water out of the cabbage to make egg rolls. I would stand on the cabbage for an hour a day. I think it made me what I am today.
Lo: That's sort of "Kung Fu Panda" stuff.
Where were your families from?
Yu: Both my mom's and dad's families were from mainland China but they were displaced during the war and met in Taiwan.
Lo: My family was from Fujian province in southeastern China. But my grandfather and father spent time in Hong Kong and then came to New York, and we ended up in Philadelphia.
Yu: I grew up in Milwaukee. My dad came here first. He was sponsored by a relative, and then he sponsored my mom, my sister and me.
And how did you get to Atlanta?
Yu: My mother and grandmother moved here, I came here during my junior year in high school, and then I started cooking here.
Lo: I moved to Atlanta after grad school, and I took a job with Home Depot. They hired a bunch of MBA grads because they had all these international expansionary plans. I was supposed to only be here a year or two before they sent me to China. But I met my wife four months after I moved here, and things changed.
So enter the Korean wives?
Yu: My wife and his wife were childhood friends. And that's how we became friends.
Lo: The first time I met him he was the chef at Uncle Julio's. So we knew each other about 11 years ago, when I was still working for Home Depot in corporate finance.
So a guy living the restaurant life and a guy living the corporate life meet and decide to go into business together?
Lo: I'd been wanting to do something that was entrepreneurial, and I wanted to open restaurants. Honestly, it was because having lived in New York and San Francisco and Asia, I thought Atlanta had really bad Asian food intown, and I thought I could do something about it.
Yu: At that point, I had already opened my first restaurant, this place called Con Sal in Peachtree Corners. I was 25, and way too young, but I learned a lot of lessons. After two years, it closed, and I grew up. Then I went to culinary school, and worked my way back up.
Lo: I first called him because I wanted to pick his brain about opening a restaurant. But after talking we decided to do it together. We formed a partnership, and opened Makan about five years ago.
That was really the genesis of everything, wasn’t it?
Lo: Originally the concept was a combination of who we are and what we wanted to do food-wise. We're both Chinese-American and our wives are Korean-American and we had a mix of Chinese and Korean dishes, and we really loved ramen, too. It definitely lacked the focus that we know that we need on a menu now. But at the time, no one was doing much of any of those things intown.
Maybe you got caught between people who didn’t understand the food and people who thought it wasn’t authentic?
Yu: Yeah. It was like, "What is this?" Or "This isn't as good as Buford Highway."
When did you create Korean Wives Hospitality Group?
Lo: It was a few months after we opened Makan. [The name] was a kind of a joke in certain ways. But as we were explaining the concept to the servers, we were telling our stories, and trying to explain why there was both Chinese and Korean food on the menu… We wouldn't have met without our wives. And it's always been the joke. But our wives both have graduate degrees and successful careers. My wife is a nurse practitioner. George's wife is a civil engineer who works on highways.
You both married well, then.
Lo: I quit a very stable corporate finance job. George was on his way to becoming a corporate chef. So our wives are the stable part of our lives now. They have regular paychecks. They have health insurance. And they have flexible enough schedules to be there for the kids.
Yu: A lot of stuff fell into place for us when we needed it to work out, and our wives were a big part of that. And as a chef, it really rejuvenates when you can do something new.
Lo: We knew we wanted to have multiple concepts. And one thing sort of leads to another. For instance, the buns were very popular here, so that led to Suzy Siu's Baos at Krog.
Yu: For Double Dragon, a guest came here regularly and told us about the space opening up in Oakhurst, and that we should open there.
Lo: We had always joked and talked about doing American Chinese food. We wanted to do a kind of family place, and the Oakhurst community just seemed right and old enough for that kind of nostalgia and cultural reference.
Taiyo Ramen. 130 Clairemont Ave., Suite 100, Decatur. 404-996-6504. Taiyoramen.com; Suzy Siu’s Baos, 99 Krog St.404-565-4510 facebook.com/suzysiusbaos. Double Dragon, 350 Mead Rd. 404-832-0016. doubledragonoakhurst.com
In 2014 Lo and Yu started the Atlanta Ramen Festival, which is scheduled to return for a fifth year in October of 2018 at a location to be determined. At least two dozen chefs and restaurants will compete to win the coveted Ramen Cup, and all proceeds will benefit the Giving Kitchen.
BOB TOWNSEND, the editor of Southern Brew News, has been writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com