Greater Cincinnati’s Asian Food Week returns for its third iteration Jan. 31-Feb. 6, coinciding this year with the Lunar New Year.
Created by Asianati, an outfit dedicated to promoting and advancing Asian restaurants and businesses in the region (operating in tandem with the Asian American Cultural Association of Cincinnati), Asian Food Week is an expansion of Asian Food Fest. But in its third go-around, it’s safe to say Asian Food Week stands on its own merits.
“It’s overall a celebration and representation of our culture,” says Sam Burke, the social media manager and photographer for Asianati. “This year, we decided to pair up Asian Food Week along with Lunar New Year, which is Feb. 1, and a holiday celebrated by a lot of Asian countries and a lot of Asian-Americans, so we thought it would be a natural pairing.”
The last two years have been particularly challenging for restaurants and the service industry as a whole, but the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes in late 2020 and 2021 have made navigating a pandemic and staying afloat even more challenging for Asian-owned businesses.
“Some restaurants deal with prank calls and large orders that are never picked up or receive calls of harassment, so (this offers) overall a sense of support and solidarity,” Burke says.
Asian Food Week highlights the diverse array of Asian restaurants in the Greater Cincinnati region; this year, more than 40 restaurants are participating. Customers can order a three-course prix fixe meal at $20 or $30 or “secret menu” items not typically offered at the restaurant. The secret menu special is a nod to the unlisted menu often found at many Asian restaurants across the country that includes traditional dishes that may not conform to mainstream American tastes.
“You could see that a lot with Chinese-American restaurants,” Burke says. “There was a time where the American palate wasn’t as into traditional Chinese food — (they) were trying to appeal to American palates, which skewed sweet. These places would have a secret menu for their customers that did want more authentic, traditional reminders of home.”
“So the secret menu is a fun way for these restaurants to do something different that you can’t normally find on their menus,” Burke continues. “Thankfully now, you’re seeing more of a welcoming and curiosity toward more authentic and more adventurous takes on Asian food.”
The countries represented by participating restaurants span the whole of the Asian continent. While the Far East is the region of Asia with the most populous restaurant representation locally, Asian fare also means Indian food, Middle Eastern food, Tibetan food and various fusion offerings.
Dope! Asian Street Fare has made its reputation by melding the popular street foods of several Asian cities, citing Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore and more among its inspirations. In the two years since the Dope! coterie participated in the first Asian Food Week, they’ve expanded from their original location in the Kroger On the Rhine food hall into Anderson and Hyde Park and also opened Decibel, a new Korean fried chicken outfit with a brick-and-mortar location in Walnut Hills.
Their success was not without pandemic-related pitfalls.
“It’s brutal,” says Kam Siu, owner and founder of Dope!. “I think Mapi (De Veyra, operating partner of Decibel) and I, we put in — I think we lost count. At some point we just stopped counting how many hours we put in, just so we could control labor, fill in the shortages and just keep the operation going. We knew we had to get through it, and we were just fortunate to have the team that we have underneath us.”
Maintaining five restaurants with a great team is fine, but the food has to be good, too. Luckily for Dope!, their fusion menu — including ramen, bao buns, wings, okonomiyaki and more — has hit a sweet spot, occupying the middle of the Venn diagram of the appeal of street food with the panache of in-house attention. But if the recipe for success had already been so clearly laid out, why venture into a more narrowly focused cuisine, like that of Decibel and its unique Korean fried chicken offering?
“Because Dope! encompasses so many of the different countries and flavor profiles around Asia, it didn’t really make sense to do a similar concept to it, because it’s already been done,” says Siu. “But we knew the Korean fried chicken, at the time we looked at it, was just expanding and growing really, really fast. All the statistics, everything is there. There’s no reason why we need to go beyond Korean fried chicken.”
“Let’s just really focus on one concept, one particular style of cooking, and be the best that we can be at this,” Siu continues. “And now, we’re the first Korean fried chicken here in Cincinnati, with two locations. We’re hoping to do more locations later on.”
Korean fried chicken is wildly crunchy and incredibly good, thanks to its twice-fried airy batter. At Decibel, you can select from four different chicken “preps,” including dry spice, gochujang barbecue, spicy or garlic soy, served as tenders, wings or drumsticks. You also can select a KFC sammie, gojuchang and soy-cured cukes, zesty waffle fries, Korean rice and a few other side dishes.
Decibel’s Walnut Hills location recently began offering a Sunday brunch, including a Korean fried chicken and ube waffle.
For Asian Food Week, Dope! shines a spotlight on different Asian cultures (Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese) with three-course meals featuring wings, dumplings and ramen or rice bowls, all for $25.
Part of the Homeskillet Corp. restaurant group, Dope! may have started out as an Asian food venture, but it has become a panoplist representation of individual Asian countries. The group’s ascension in the region’s restaurant culture has transcended any kind of lingering cuisine restrictions, and their ethos and attitude toward food calls to mind a younger, scrappier version of the Thunderdome Restaurant Group (Bakersfield, The Eagle, Maplewood, Pepp & Dolores, Currito, CityBird and Krueger’s).
Siu, De Veyra and other members of the Homeskillet team aren’t resting on any laurels. They recently acquired the Pelican’s Reef in Anderson — which Siu says they purchased for its welcoming culture and 20-plus years in business — and have robust future plans, including another Dope! location and a move into the Filipino food market.
Asian Food Week runs Jan. 31-Feb. 6 in Greater Cincinnati.
More info: asianati.com.