Written by Sophie X. Song
Interview conducted by Wendy Tsai
Translated by Sophie X. Song
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Asian Palace restaurant, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Quality is a restaurant’s best marketing strategy.”
Located in Columbia, Maryland, Asian Palace is a Chinese and Japanese fusion restaurant that’s been loved by the local community for more than 12 years. Benjamin Shi, the restaurant’s owner, had just moved to the United States all those years ago, and always had a passion for cooking as a hobby. Upon meeting like-minded partners, he decided to open a restaurant of his very own.
“I thought I could indulge in my hobby and earn money at the same time if I opened a restaurant,” said Shi. It all began simply enough, but before he knew it, Asian Palace had experienced twelve wonderful years of success.
The Health of the Community
Asian Palace is situated in a residential area where neighbors tended to stay awhile, decades even, and many of the restaurant’s guests were older folks who preferred lighter meals. Shi and his partners considered this factor carefully when designing the menu for Asian Palace. The restaurant’s most popular dishes combine Chinese and Japanese cuisine, such as stir-fries and sushi platters, and in comparison to Chinese restaurants that favor more robust flavors, the foods served at Asian Palace tend to be light. Shi has made sure to include several delicious vegetarian dishes as well.
“After the age of 40 or 50, people should eat lighter and healthier food to maintain the health of their body. Many of our customers observe a vegetarian diet,” Shi said. “In addition to the vegetarian dishes on the menu, we can make taste adjustments according to customers’ dietary requirements. For example, we have vegan sushi.”
“We really can’t eat meat all the time. Vegetables are more nutritious,” Shi mused. “Otherwise, why would so many choose vegetarian dishes these days? Vegetables contain a lot of the vitamins that our bodies need to stay healthy. In addition,” he added, “vegetarianism can reduce the killing of animals.”
Shi’s thorough consideration for the health of his guests happened to coincide with Tzu Chi’s goals for launching the Very Veggie Movement. Therefore, when Frank Chen — the Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Washington DC Chapter — and other volunteers came to Asian Palace to introduce this initiative, they became fast friends with Shi, and soon reached an agreement for working together to increase the availability of better, more affordable vegetarian foods.
Unchanging Insistence on Quality
When the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, Asian Palace, like many other restaurants in the U.S., had to rely more on takeaway and delivery. But even for a restaurant that has been in business for more than a decade, this was still a challenge.
“It’s more difficult to control the quality of takeaway food. We must monitor the cooking time strictly,” Shi said. The food temperature does not come down immediately after it is taken out of the pan and placed in the take-out box, he explained. So technically, the cooking process has not stopped at that point, meaning the meal a customer receives can easily become overcooked. “If you cook something until it’s medium-well, it may well become too well-done by the time the customer eats it. We have to take that into account when we cook.”
Shi is insistent when it comes to quality control in the way of a traditional artisan, or even a scientist. And this has not changed due to the increased takeaways. Tzu Chi volunteers, too, have eaten or taken out at Asian Palace on more than one occasion, and are very impressed with both the food’s quality and taste.
“If our customer plans to eat at six, then we may not start cooking until 5:55, so as to ensure that the food they receive tastes as fresh as possible,” Shi said. His exacting standards have given him plenty of confidence where Asian Palace’s quality and reliability are concerned. “Even people who have never heard of our restaurant will be impressed by the quality of their meal if they dine here.”
Since Asian Palace opened its doors more than ten years ago, it has become a popular spot in the area, well-loved by the local community, indeed. Today, Shi is as busy as ever, but even so, he said he does not ever plan to forego the strictest supervision of food quality at Asian Palace. After all, in his opinion, “Quality is a restaurant’s best marketing strategy.”
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