Saigon Bistro Is Now One Bowl
Expanding the Asian horizon
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the December, 2016 issue
One Bowl, an Asian bistro at 1220 S. University, opened its doors (which actually face S. Forest), on July 6, in the deadest time of the year on campus. Owner Unyeon Choi bought the restaurant from her best friend, Kim Sunghee, after waitressing there for three years. She decided to continue the old Saigon Bistro menu for longtime customers who love Chinese food, but she added Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese specialties as entrees--all served in large bowls.
"I have always loved cooking," Choi says. "My mother taught me when I was very young. And we believe that good friends share good food." She tweaked the menu over the summer while painting the walls with soothing browns and beiges, arranging tables and chairs, and hanging art from Michigan artists. "Decorating is my favorite thing to do," she says--fortunately so, because business in July and August was "very, very slow."
That worried her. "There were days when I was the only one here, cooking, greeting, waiting on tables, and cleaning up--and I had time to spare. But now that the students and professors have returned to campus and found us, business is very good--and getting better," she says, welcoming early lunch customers one fall day. "I love people, and I love making new relationships. I want to make people happy, to give them a warm, homey, cozy place to eat and stay to meet friends or read a book. Food helps us make new friends and sustain old friendships."
After studying fashion design in Rochester, New York, the Korean native married and moved to Ann Arbor in 1999. Her two children--Sarah Jessica and Daniel David--make frequent appearances at One Bowl, which is truly a family enterprise. Her mother, Soonnam, until recently divided her time between Korea and Ann Arbor; she has just applied for a green card so she can supervise the kitchen. Unyeon's brother Kisun and friend Nori both cook. Unyeon's sister, Soyeon Jiyeon, manages the restaurant. Another friend, MSU
professor Masumi Hamada, does the books. The eight members of the waitstaff include Korean and Chinese natives who often welcome customers in their native languages.
The menu features Hunan and Szechuan specialties, as well as Korean (bulgogi BBQ and spicy pork, beef and chicken dishes), Japanese (chicken, pork, and vegetable tonkatsu), and Vietnamese (pho-based) best-sellers. Several dishes are vegan. To Choi's surprise, One Bowl's most popular selections are the Korean and Vietnamese specialties, particularly the Pho Basic, in which rice noodles, herbs, and aromatic beef float in broth, to which customers add bean sprouts and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. "We make pho [broth] the traditional way, with my family's old recipe," Choi says.
Early on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, she heads to the Farmers Market, where she purchases fresh ingredients for her recipes. "I can find everything I need there--herbs, sprouts, vegetables, even the decorations I hang on the walls of One Bowl."
She greets a regular customer in Korean, ushers her over to the nearest waiter, then glances around her restaurant proudly. As part of the redo, she lined the walls with inspirational quotes that, she explains, "say who I am and what I believe"
Always find time for the things that make you feel happy to be alive."I love to have the people here eating, talking, relaxing, enjoying themselves," Choi says. "Some customers have been coming here for twenty years. I hope they come for many years into the future.
Love more, worry less.
Do more of what makes you happy.
Choose your own path.
Dare to dream.
Do all things with love.
Amazing things will happen.
Choi is on hand daily from early morning to midnight. "It's a hard schedule," she says, "but I love running my own restaurant." When she can catch her breath, she plans to add more Asian specialties to the menu.
One Bowl, 1220 S. University, 747-7006. Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. & Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
[Originally published in December, 2016.]
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