Brothers and business partners Ryan and Thad Gillies, current co-owners of Logan, an American fine dining restaurant on West Washington Street, will open their new restaurant, Chow Asian Street Food, on March 18. Occupying the former Mark’s Carts location on West Liberty Street, Chow features build-your-own bowls and sandwiches, as well as a variety of soups, sides and desserts.
Customers order the main entree offered at Chow by first choosing the size of the bowl and a base of either rice or noodles. Then, customers pick one protein out of options including Szechuan chicken, char siu pork, rendang beef and the vegetarian sesame garlic tofu. According to Thad Gillies, vegetable sides will feature items such as daikon kimchi and Chinese long beans, as well as other seasonally rotating options.
Chow also offers rou jia mo sandwich variants based off the traditional Chinese rou jia mo, a dish dating back to 200 B.C. The brothers expressed they decided to go with the name “rou jia mo” because it is distinctive.
“We’ve noticed you’ll see similar things at different Chinese restaurants… they call it Chinese hamburgers,” Ryan Gillies said. “We haven’t found anybody that’s sticking with the name, so we just thought it’d be unique and stand out once people get used to it.”
Ryan Gillies noted their food is representative of many different Asian and Pacific Islander cultures.
“We should expand on our thoughts of what Asian really is, because everyone seems to want to focus on China, but Asia is huge, so we’re reaching into other areas,” Ryan Gillies said.
Thad Gillies expanded on Ryan Gillies’ ideas, highlighting some of his specific ingredients and dishes and their origin.
“The sandwiches are (from) China,” Thad Gillies said. “The beef is from Malaysia. A lot of my soup recipes are from Russia; I have some Pakistan recipes I’m working with. So it’s this Spice Road element of Asia all the way through — Korea, Japan, Indonesia. The whole continent of Asia is where I’m focusing on.”
Thad Gillies explained the bulk of his research into Asian-Pacific Islander cuisine has come from cookbooks and YouTube videos created by users such as Mark Wiens, Mikey Chen, Travel Thirsty and the Food Ranger.
“YouTube and cookbooks, that’s where I’ve studied the most,” Thad Gillies said. “I stop the video and look and go, ‘What’s that?’ I can try to figure it out; it becomes a game.”
According to Ryan Gillies, when the brothers first acquired the Chow location from Mark Hodesh of Mark’s Carts in January 2018, they knew they wanted to implement fast casual style dining but had no set concept.
“The place found us,” Ryan Gillies said. “So it was the end of 2017, Mark’s Carts closed for good. He (Hodesh) just heard through the Ann Arbor grapevine that we might be looking for a space … (in) January of 2018, we liked two things: the giant kitchen … and the proximity to Logan would still allow us to be hands-on in both places.”
In their 15 years at Logan, Thad Gillies has been the cook while Ryan Gillies focuses on business administration. While their roles at Chow will largely remain the same, according to Thad Gillies, the brothers want business at Chow to be a contrast from their business at Logan.
“We had been wanted to do something else, but we didn’t want to do fine dining again,” Thad said. “We wanted something that was a lot cheaper price point, more everyday, fast casual style dining. Logan’s typically a big-night-out kind of restaurant, and we wanted this to be the opposite.”
According to Thad Gillies, the brothers decided to serve API food at their new restaurant because he has always been interested in Asian cuisine.
“I love (Asian food),” Thad Gillies said. “We grew up here in Michigan, and when we were kids, I thought going to a Chinese restaurant was the height of fine dining. And I’ve always just been attracted to it and studied it. Even when I was trained in New York I worked under a French chef that was one of the first to fuse French and Asian together. The flavor profile has always been something I’ve messed around with and worked with. Even at Logan, there’s a lot of Asian influence throughout it.”
Ryan Gillies further explained their concept of the term “street food,” comparing it to the term “fast casual.”
“A lot of Americans seem to think street food has to be a wrap or something you walk away with and walk around with,” Ryan Gillies said. “But if you really look at street food from around the world — I mean I’ve traveled enough, not Asia but all across Europe — it’s a vendor sitting out on the street making food. … So it’s quick, easy, freshly-made food right in front of you. … It’s just a different way to explain what’s already happening in the fast casual market, they just haven’t adopted the term (street food).”
Thad Gillies emphasized his commitment to the food served at Chow.
“A lot of fast casual places are corporate … everything is done by vote, it’s a scientific process almost,” Thad Gillies said. “Where (Chow) is like my artist gallery, I’m cooking what I like, where I create all the recipes from scratch and am involved with it every day. The bowls, the noodles, the rice, the other ingredients, these are all stuff I like from Asia. Now you be the chef, you put it together how you want it. It’s all component-driven.”
When asked by The Daily if they’ve sought any feedback about Chow’s food from any members of the Asian-American and Pacific-Islander communities, Thad Gillies noted an Asian cook and some Asian customers at Logan have sampled some of his chili oils.
Thad Gillies voiced worry some might criticize Chow’s concept.
“Cultural appropriation is one concern that I fear,” Thad Gillies said. “Or just like, ‘What do you know about (Asian food)?’ Well, I’ve trained myself, I’m a self-taught chef. It’s a technique, you just need to learn the technique and stay true to it.”
According to Ryan Gillies, the restaurant’s name is meant to have dual meaning.
“Chow has the American connotation, which is just like grub or food,” Ryan Gillies said. “But it’s also to cook or to fry.”
Ian Shin, an assistant professor of American culture and history who focuses on Asian American history at the University of Michigan and a self-described avid cook, expressed Chow’s research does not necessarily allow them to market Asian/Pacific Islander food without careful thought.
“I’m a little confused as to what they’re trying to do because I see a lot of different ideas, both in the ClickOnDetroit article and the menu,” Shin said. “It makes me wary that they put a lot of weight on the fact that they’ve done a lot of research, because there are distinctions drawn between doing research and having power. … Also, ‘char siu’ is spelled incorrectly in the menu … (which) gives me pause in terms of how good their research is.”
Shin also voiced concern about Chow’s use of the term “Asian street food.”
“Night markets, street vendors in Asia, in places like Taiwan, and Singapore and Hong Kong where I’m from, they would not include something like the ginger snickerdoodle,” Shin said. “Some of that I find problematic. So, I would encourage them to hedge their bets a little bit to say it’s street food-inspired rather than calling it Asian street food.”
Shin said he would like to see the Gillies brothers be clearer about how they describe Chow’s food.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that only Asian chefs can cook Asian food,” Shin said. “But I think there needs to be respect to the cultures from which it comes. One suggestion I’d give to the owners of the restaurant would be to heed their claims a little more about what the food is about.”
Business junior Steven Meng, vice president of programming for Asian/Pacific Islander American Students in Business and president and business director of Wolverine CuiZine, a student-run food publication, voiced excitement for Chow and his support of fast casual business models in general.
“Chow looks pretty interesting — I might take a look,” Meng said. “Fast casual is a popular theme going around — look at Piada, Chipotle. It’s a good concept — I really like how it gives consumers a lot of options. A lot of people enjoy having the ability to customize their food.”
In particular, Meng expressed interest in Chow’s Chinese five-spice brownie dessert.
“I really like five-spice,” Meng said. “I haven’t seen it in a Western dessert before, so I’m not sure how the flavor will come together. As, like, a curiosity factor, I’d try one. The fact that they have that is really cool.”
According to Meng, he foresees the audience will mainly be people who frequent other fast casual establishments and are not exactly looking for authentic API cuisine.
“It’s not exactly Asian street food, calling it street food may not be the most appropriate in terms of accuracy-wise,” Meng said. “It’ll appeal to people who regularly hit up Piada and Chipotle. … This would mainly appeal to a more Western population — I wouldn’t expect to see anyone going in there looking for actual Asian food.”