Say hello to Chef Noy and owner Anna Makmok (mother and daughter team) of Anna’s Asian Grill and Sushi. As if this creative cooking duo wasn’t busy enough feeding hungry Chicagoans, they’re in the midst of opening a brand new restaurant in downtown Chicago. We caught up with Anna and she delightfully gave us a peek into what her brand new restaurant is going to look like.
Can you take us back to your early beginnings – how did you get started with Anna’s Asian Grill?
In 2008, my mother and I started Thalia Spice in River North – it’s where I learned to speak English. I didn’t speak any English when I moved to Chicago, and through daily conversations, our customers taught me, they’re like family.
Thalia Spice received a lot of media attention early on, boosting our popularity. We were featured on Check Please!, in the Chicago Reader, named one of Foursquare’s top 15 Asian places in Chicago, voted one of the best Chicago diners by OpenTable, and then voted the best fried dish in Chicago for our famous stuffed avocado by Chicago’s Best.
We’re just around the corner from the Fooda office, so we became one of Fooda’s first partners. Ready for new challenges and to keep creating delicious food, in 2011, I left Thalia Spice to open Anna’s Asian bistro on Lake and Halsted. Two years later, we opened our second location at 1804 Irving Park.
Tells us more about your mom, Chef Noy.
Mom is from Laos – a country with a heavy French influence which comes through beautifully in her food. I brought her in as the head chef—she’s the best, and I don’t just say that because she’s my mom. She’s an excellent chef and the hardest worker I know.
I think she’s successful because her food is her own unique spin on a blend of ethnic cuisines, from Thailand, Laos, India, and Japan. Her food is its own creation you can’t find anywhere else.
Her brother (my uncle) is Japanese and is also in the restaurant business. He trained my mother in the art of making makimono.
What kind of food do you cook for your family?
We eat the same stuff as in our restaurants—we love it!
Your menu is so creative, from stuffed avocado to Indian samosa to volcano soup, and more than 30 varieties of makimono—where do you get inspiration for your dishes?
It helps that we all love to cook and eat! My mother and uncle are of course huge inspirations. The food we prepare at the restaurant is the authentic home cooking my mother and uncles have enjoyed all their lives.
What are your best-selling dishes?
Definitely the stuffed avocado, sushi, panang curry, and our fall-off-the-bone ribs. We make everything ourselves at the restaurant, right down to our own sauces.
What’s one of Americans’ biggest misconceptions about Asian food?
Many Americans prefer their food to be sweet, and they expect Thai dishes like green curry to taste sweet. One of the main ingredients in green curry is coconut milk – in Thailand, coconut milk has a natural sweetness to it – it’s different from coconut milk found in the US though. Some restaurants add sweeteners and corn starch to their green curry to make it thicker and sweeter – this isn’t how it should be done!
We’re excited about your new location; can you tell us about it?
All my creative energy is going into this place! It’s called, RYUU (it means “Asian dragon”), and it’s going to be a one-of-a-kind Asian BBQ experience – no one in Chicago is doing this.
The concept is similar to Korean BBQ, where a chef grills your meal right in front of you on a tabletop grill—our concept uses a special kind of smokeless table where the smoke from the food and grill go under the table, instead of being sucked up into the air by a range hood.
I spent four months researching to find the best smokeless BBQ table. I traveled to LA twice, San Diego, San Francisco, and Miami just to find the perfect one. The best part of using this new kind of system is you won’t leave the restaurant smelling like a smoky BBQ.
How will RYUU be different from Anna’s Asian?
Many of the creations and influence of Anna’s Asian will appear at RYUU, the main difference is that customers can cook their food themselves. Of course, if customers want their servers to this, they’ll be more than happy to do this for them.
At Thalia Spice and Anna’s Asian we don’t have a liquor license, it’s BYOB. At RYUU we’ll have a liquor license, which I’m really excited about since I’ve been having fun creating my own drinks for the drink menu. We’ll serve my new drink creations and some local beers that pair well with Asian BBQ. It’s going to be a really fun place to be.
When do you plan to open RYUU?
What advice do you have for restaurant owners looking to open a second location?
Make sure your first restaurant is healthy and running well first. Having an excellent staff like we do helps!
Your third restaurant – this is such an amazing accomplishment! Do you think you’ll ever get tired of the restaurant industry?
I get asked this a lot. Actually, I stopped working for a year before Anna’s Asian Grill opened, and felt something was missing in my life. If I wasn’t cooking at the restaurant, you’d find me crafting new dishes to enjoy at home. I realized I missed working, I missed the customers—they’re my family. These days, I’m working all the time – if I can work 7 days a week, I will.
A big thank you to Anna for taking the time to chat with us. While waiting for RYUU to open this fall, say hello to Anna’s Asian on Facebook!