A Taste of Culture in our Own BackyardJul 01, 2020 ● By Christi Redfearn
Each place is locally owned and operated – no corporate concept restaurants. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to completely change their habits rather suddenly, each of these restaurants rose to the challenge and adapted to the cautious climate. Places where family style became experts at to-go orders. Dining areas once crowded and filled with laughter and conversation were suddenly silent. As we work through the reopening process, these restaurants are working tirelessly to accommodate their loyal customers while adhering to state guidelines and still serving unique, amazing food showcasing their heritage and culture like no one else can.
Take a trip around the world with some of Frisco’s unique flavors. The owners of each restaurant take personal pride in their culture and food, and their stories are inspirational.
Brazilian food is influenced by European, Amerindian, African and Asian cuisine and cultures. While there are many different styles and tastes based on the region you are in, the food is never short on flavor. Churrascos are primarily found in Southern Brazil because of a long tradition of livestock and heavy German immigration. Churrasco means barbeque, and because gauchos were nomadic living off the land, it was customary to gather together with friends and family after butchering a steer to cook the meat immediately over a wood-burning fire. It is a tradition that lives on today, with waiters cutting portions of cooked meat directly off a skewer in Brazilian steakhouses.
David Jeiel and his brother-in-law, Alex Nunes, started EG Steakhouse in 2013 because they wanted to carry the banner for themselves – owned by Brazilians and managed by Brazilians. They spent several years working for a few other Gaucho-style restaurants. In fact, when they opened, they were the only truly Brazilian-owned and managed steakhouse in the DFW area. “Trying to maintain authenticity has been a challenge,” said Mr. Jeiel. He came from Sao Paolo originally, and Mr. Nunes was born in Southern Brazil, where their food originated. “My brother-in-law enjoys the history and I enjoy the food,” he adds.
The pair have been working together a while in different restaurants before opening EG Steak yet have different backgrounds that complement one another for the business. Mr. Jeiel has worked with restaurants but ventured out into other avenues, with his heavily urban upbringing. In fact, Mr. Jeiel compares his birthplace to a Brazilian New York, with nonstop hustle. His brother-in-law has been in the restaurant business since he was fourteen, from the southern countryside of Brazil, a much more rural and laid-back area. They were fortunate enough to spend several years learning different aspects of the restaurant business before taking the leap to go out on their own. Their passion is about preserving history but also providing amazing food. Mr. Jeiel said, “Food connects us on an emotional level. It often takes us back to childhood.” By providing experiences that are worth repeating, he feels they are able to connect on that emotional level with their food.
EG Steak chose Frisco for a few different reasons. When they developed their concept, they were looking for space not only in the DFW area but were considering options nationally. They wanted to be careful to choose a place where they could grow now and into the future. Several building owners did not want to take a chance on them. Through their contacts, they were able to meet with a building owner in Frisco who had space a few restaurants had tried to get started but failed. The owner was willing to take a chance on them to lease the space and they’ve been in Frisco for seven years now. “We’re grateful he took a chance on us,” says Mr. Jeiel because it has been a positive experience. “People never get tired of feeling appreciated,” he adds. Their goal is to make patrons feel appreciated while enjoying authentic Gaucho traditions.
Hard work, good timing and a little luck have all the makings to give Frisco an authentic Brazilian steakhouse, with passionate owners who work tirelessly to provide an amazing experience. The seasonings, the different choices of meat and the authentic Brazilian side dishes make EG Steak a destination for people to enjoy as much as they can handle, while feeling like the staff genuinely cares that each patron enjoys their meal.
Food in Greece makes wide use of vegetables, olive oil, olives, pasta, fish, wine, a variety of meat and so much more. There are some dishes that have a history going back thousands of years and still continue to be served today. It has been influenced by surrounding countries but also influences their food equally. Dining out in Greece is common, and showmanship though the food is part of the package. It is another cuisine heavily influenced by the region one is in at the time.
When it comes to Greek food in the United States, it does not get more authentic than a family restaurant run by a head chef that is not only Greek but lived in Greece for three years to study the local food. Sally Maglaris was born and raised in Chicago where her family ran diners and restaurants her whole life. When her parents retired and moved to Florida, she and her daughter joined them for a while but decided Florida was not for them.
A friend asked her to move to Dallas to run a couple of places at Valley View Mall and Collin Creek Mall in 1995. After a short time in the DFW area, she wanted to connect with her roots and that is when she moved to Greece. “Life was so amazing. You could walk out of your house and pick fresh fish or whatever you wanted,” Ms. Maglaris commented about her time there. “There are so many different regions of Greek food and each region does something special.”
When Ms. Maglaris returned to the Dallas area in 1998, she knew she had to open her own place. The DFW area has come a long way when it comes to being a food destination, and when she set out on her own, it was still somewhat lacking. She started small with a place in Addison. She opened another restaurant in Plano, but really found her footing when she opened “her baby” in 2010. It was a perfect situation – her sister and brother-in-law, Rhea and George Manos, were visiting from Chicago and she finally convinced them to stop visiting and move to the Frisco area to be a part of her dream – Platia Greek Kouzina.
“I always wanted to open in Frisco,” Ms. Maglaris said having lived in the area for several years. The timing was especially good for them. The economy was struggling, and they had money to invest. They looked at a few different locations but settled on the location where they still are today. “It was a vacant pizzeria. My sister and I hired contractors, but we did a lot of the work ourselves,” she said.
The food is hearty and rustic, and all fresh, from scratch. They wanted to focus on creating a genuine, fresh taste of Greek food – one that would keep people coming back for more. “We do not advertise,” Ms. Maglaris said. “We let our customers do it for us.” On weekends, it is not uncommon to have a waiting line, but the customers know each other, and it becomes a community gathering of sorts. Most of the staff has a tenure of three years or more, so customers get to know them on a deeper level. When visiting Platia, you will never get a half measure. Food is their passion, and they want everyone who dines with them to feel like family, and in a Greek family, you never leave the table hungry.
Thai food started making waves in the 1980s when tourism to the country started to take off. In that short time, it has become one of the most popular types of food around the world. Historically, there are many Chinese Szechwan influences, but over the years it has evolved and changed to become its own unique experience. They boast of their special unique blend of all five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy. Over time, regions adapted in different ways leading to modern times showcasing four distinct styles of cooking in the country.
Anuwat and Ratchani Karapakdee have been Frisco residents for almost 20 years. When they came to America from Thailand, Mr. Karapakdee immediately started cooking for renowned restaurants in different places because making great food had been a passion since he started in 1989. When they found their way to Texas, he became a chef for Chow Thai Pacific Rim, the first Thai food restaurant in the DFW area. After five years, he moved on to Seasons 52 and then the Westin Hotel in Frisco before being able to open his own place. Since they already lived in Frisco, there was not another place they could imagine opening their own restaurant.
Mrs. Karapakdee said, “We wanted to give Frisco real Thai food and have a little Thailand in the heart of the town because we love it so much.” With the opening of Simply Thai, the Karapakdees brought Mrs. Karapakdee’s two brothers and their wives, also all accomplished chefs who came from upscale hotel and dining backgrounds, to help cook and run the restaurant.
Although the Main Street location started small, they enjoyed being able to work like a family. “Even the cashiers work for us for three to five years, starting in high school, graduating, and sometimes coming back from college to work,” Mrs. Karapakdee added. Mr. Karapakdee is not only trained in Thai cooking, but also French, Japanese, Vietnamese and Mexican food. While working for others he was not able to be as creative as he wanted to be, and opening his own place allowed him the freedom to take his food to the next level.
This family of chefs often create weekly specials, where they create a Thai dish with influences from other Asian cuisines. If it does well with their customers, it becomes part of the menu. They take extra care to make sure their food offerings stay unique, original and delicious. There is a sense of pride that comes from being able to explore Thai food creatively and stay true to their roots.
The entire family genuinely loves to cook. Their ingredients are fresh, and they are particular about balancing all the flavors to maintain authentic Thai cuisine that looks as good as it tastes. “We love the community and the people in Frisco. The people are so kind,” Mrs. Karapakdee said. The loyalty shows in their restaurants, going from one small location to expanding their patio area and even opening their second location. Families come back time and time again because they get to see amazing chefs prepare the food, yet feel like they are dining at home. The smells and the tastes are amazing, but the passion and the genuine care each dish is prepared with is what makes families come back to this restaurant over and over again.
Sushi and sashimi are a Japanese specialty, filled with honor and tradition. While the cuisine’s roots are deep, the style of food has definitely had its share of evolution and elevation over the centuries. It has had a presence in Japan for more than 500 years. It appeared in the United States in the early 1900s as more Japanese people immigrated. While it started as a way of preserving and fermenting fish with rice, it evolved more toward the use of the fresh fish we know today. Being a sushi chef is a high honor and something some chefs serve as apprentices for decades.
For KC and Lydia Choi, owners of Sake Toro, sushi is more than fine dining – it is their opportunity to showcase their staying true to the traditions that make sushi special. Mr. Choi has been a chef in many different restaurants, and a few different cities, practicing and honing his craft. He has been able to take something he has learned from each place and incorporate it into Sake Toro’s menu, giving it global flavor and local flair.
Mr. Choi is originally from Seoul, South Korea but moved with his family to Michigan in 1982 at the age of thirteen. “I have worked at Asian or Japanese restaurants since middle school. I have been a busser, host, dish washer and waiter and I have always respected Japanese cuisine,” said Mr. Choi. The firsthand experience with so many aspects of the restaurant business gave him a unique perspective on starting his own restaurant years later. “I did not know much at the time, but I always looked up to the restaurant owners. They were doing well,” Mr. Choi added. Even though he did not think about it much growing up, his path led him toward opening his own restaurant. As a father and family man, it was important to him to become successful and provide for his family. Working for other restaurant owners was good for him to learn the business, but he knew he needed to have his own place to have the chance to get ahead.
Although Mr. Choi has been a chef at many restaurants, ranging from places in Las Vegas to helping a friend open Tomodachi in Austin, Frisco was not a place he knew of originally. “After helping my friend open and make sure he became successful, it was time to start my own restaurant,” Mr. Choi said. After searching around on his own, he contacted a realtor in Dallas who suggested Frisco for his location. “My Austin friends said it was a good idea and it was all positive feedback,” Mr. Choi said, and Frisco became his and Mrs. Choi’s new home.
Mr. Choi always looked up to sushi chefs. The tradition, the necessity to be particular and neat, the art of arranging the food on the plate, were all things he admired and wanted to be able to master on his own. “Almost half the food on our menu comes from things I learned while working in Las Vegas or my own creation,” Mr. Choi said. The rest is traditional Japanese sushi. He is always looking for something new, something light, and to set new trends. He watches what people eat and tries to create dishes that taste delicious, but also match what is popular.
If you ever find yourself at Sake Toro, be sure to look at the specials on the board. Mr. Choi creates spectacular dishes based on what is the freshest and in season for Japanese and sushi cuisine. There are even some off-menu surprises waiting for those with an adventurous spirit.
Syrian and Arabic food also has a long history, filled with unique uses of herbs and spices, unique traditions, and has been influenced by the climate, but also trade. Desserts hold a special place in Arab cuisine, as sweets are consumed more frequently during the month of Ramadan than they are the rest of the year. It is influenced by the many different cultures that have inhabited the region for centuries and evolved to take its place as unique but steeped in history. The ingredients might look a little unusual to some, but they blend together to create a sweet and savory balance on each plate.
Originally from Syria, Kareem Alrefaai and Asmara Khattab moved from their homeland to the US at different times, but both were passionate about sharing their unique ice cream and pastries from their old home with their new home. They also had a dream to set out on their own to become successful entrepreneurs. While they could have pursued a full Arabic restaurant, they found a niche in focusing on desserts by opening Big Dash Ice Cream and Pastries in Frisco.
Mrs. Khattab is a self-taught pastry chef, learning everything on her own from her home kitchen as she grew up. She worked day in and day out to perfect her techniques and recipes. “I know it is all sweet and ice cream, but I wanted our sweets to have the back-home taste, as well and the modesty of not making it too sweet,” she said. She covers a variety of Mediterranean deserts including stretchy Arabic ice cream (something you have to see for yourself to believe), crispy Baklava, and traditional Kinafa, a dessert made with a noodle-like pastry soaked in sugar syrup and layered with cheese and other ingredients.
“Syrian dessert is amazing and very tasty with so many different varieties,” Mrs. Khattab says. Ingredients include everything from ice cream to pistachios to cheese. Being able to share a piece of her home with people who may have never experienced authentic Middle Eastern cuisine or may have a preconceived notion of what the food might be like is something she truly enjoys. She also mentions she has a special place in her heart for her first dessert she offered, sweet cheese (a soft mix of semolina flour and sweet cheese filled with cream) and adds that everyone fell in love with it. “It is a must try,” she says. They also offer a variety of coffees to complement their sweets.
The couple opened their original bakery in Richardson but saw success early on. “We see a great potential and future in our business to be open everywhere, and Frisco is a great start,” Mrs. Khattab said when asked why they chose Frisco for their second location to open earlier this year. Running back and forth between the two locations have proved to be challenging, however, they cannot see themselves doing anything else. They take great pride in being able to share part of their culture with a broader audience, many who have never tried anything like their desserts before. The couple truly enjoys seeing the faces of people who try something for the first time and realize how much they enjoy something new.
Believe it or not, this is only a sample of cultural cuisines that Frisco has to offer. There are also authentic German, Indian, Italian, French, Korean and Mexican restaurants that are owned by people who, like these owners and chefs, have a true passion for their food and want to share it with others. It is possible to visit different continents all in one weekend by dining within fifteen minutes of your home– no passport or fourteen-hour flight necessary.
If you get tired of the usual thing, or do not feel like cooking dinner one night, explore food from all over the world, brought to you by people who have dedicated their lives to preparing it beautifully, deliciously and full of heart. They have spent years perfecting their craft, and they continue to work to improve each and every day. They have either lived in or traveled to the origins of the cuisine they cook, and they work tirelessly to do justice to the food they love, but also make it their own. The best compliment you can give one of these chefs is to come back for more and maybe bring a friend. Their customers are like family to them, and each experience is taken personally to make it the best it can be.
Now is as good a time as it can be to support these restaurants and owners. They thrive on being able to serve, and they have been missing so much of what makes owning and running a restaurant rewarding – the smile on people’s faces when they have had an amazing meal. It would truly make their day.