Pao Town: New Fast-Casual Asian in the Gables and the Future

Miami on Thursday will welcome fast-casual Asian eatery Pao Town, a project Abe Ng and his team, who run the Sushi Maki empire, have been working on for nearly a year.

Local food enthusiasts began sneering at the fast-casual Asian concept almost as soon as it caught fire, yet the restaurants in the niche continue to do well nearly two years later. Richard Hales of Sakaya Kitchen says he's considering 20 more restaurants around the state, and Amir Ben-Zion's Gigi remains popular despite the departure of Top Chef contestant and chef Jeff McInnis. Ng says he and his partners saw an opportunity to bring the concept to Coral Gables, an area awash in white-linened chain restaurants.

"There's no shortage of places to choose from," he says, but "there really is room for more locally operated and owned spots."

On top of that, he's banking on customers taking to the fast-casual concept, in which diners order their food at a counter, grab their silverware and drinks, and wait for food to be brought out.

"We've obviously made an investment now in this service format, and we think people now are watching every penny," he says. "In a fast-casual, you save 10 percent to 20 percent from not having to tip. Our plateware is a bamboo resin that's reusable and washable, not like fine china that breaks. That's savings.

"We think this is a real value proposition," he adds.

Ng describes his food as Hawaiian style, melding influences from China, Japan, and Korea. The menu showcases pork belly in a steamed clamshell bun with pickled vegetables. Bacon fried rice promises pineapple and egg mixed with jasmine rice, while Kalbi short ribs come with Korean-style kimchee slaw.

The fast-casual Asian concept, at least in the past decade or so, appears to trace its roots to David Chang's East Village-based Momofuku empire. Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food has expanded nationally from San Francisco to New York City. Bowien, who sports a mustache, thick-framed glasses, and long blond hair, is the latest wunderkind in the Asian trend and has won praise for using ingredients such as pickled mustard greens and sliced beef tongue.

Meanwhile, Ng, who is of Chinese descent, said he's no foe of experimentation with Asian fare of all stripes, but emphasizes the importance of learning the fundamentals of any particular cuisine before trying to expand on them.

"You've got fusion where things don't work. That's the downside," he says. "The upside is that things like gochujang and oyster sauce are now commonplace."

For more, follow Zach on Twitter @ZachIsWeird.

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