Fresh Focus

Family-owned Mosa Asian Bistro continues success in evolving market

By Michael Waddell

For family-owned Mosa Asian Bistro in East Memphis, freshness is the key to success.

Alex Pao, from left, Eddie Pao, Laura Pao and Michelle Pao Levine run Mosa Asian Bistro, 850 S. White Station Road. The restaurant serves fast-casual food at lunch and offers full service at dinner with the same menu prices. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The neighborhood restaurant creatively blends different styles of Asian cooking into customizable dishes, and it has grown steadily over the years thanks to repeat business from satisfied customers.

Eddie “Mr. Eddie” Pao is Mosa’s founder and past owner of the Formosa Restaurant. He and his brother, Alfred Pao, opened Formosa in 1979 on Summer Avenue after immigrating to the U.S. from Taiwan two years earlier. Eddie Pao had been a successful filmmaker in Taiwan (and went to film school with Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee) but chose to move to the U.S. and switch mediums.

“The restaurant business is an art to me, so I gave up the movies and started doing this,” Pao said. “(After we opened Formosa), we had a full house every day for almost 15 years.”

Pao opened Mosa in 2005. Asian food has evolved over the past couple of decades, and one of the goals of Mosa was to find a way to bring the best of all of the cultures together.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, what people came to know Chinese food as is your average strip mall, mom-and-pop restaurant with lunch specials, but it changed and became mass marketed and Americanized and became more of a ‘buffet world,’” said Michelle Pao Levine, Pao’s daughter who runs the front of the house. “That’s not how Chinese food is at home, and we knew that in order for us to have our business and stay relevant we had to evolve.”

Pao works six-plus days per week and can usually be found at the grill, which has the capacity to stir fry vegetables in 30 seconds rather than the normal 15 to 17 minutes at home. In fact, the restaurant required three permits from Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division when it opened at 850 White Station Road to accommodate the gas needed to maintain the necessary 700 degrees.

“It has very strong power. Any longer than 30 seconds and the vegetables will burn,” Pao said.

Several other members of the Pao family also play key roles in its success. Pao’s wife, Charleen, prepares homemade cupcakes daily as well as cheesecakes and chocolate-covered strawberries seasonally, and son, Alex, and his wife, Laura, work the restaurant part-time. Vietnamese chef Ah-ton, who has worked with Pao for 26 years, runs the kitchen with Mr. Eddie.

Mosa features fast-casual dining during the day and full service at night, but the pricing stays the same throughout. At night, the lights are lowered and guests can unwind with a glass of wine or a beer with dinner. When the weather is nice, customers can also enjoy dining on the patio.

“This year, we may get local musicians to perform once a month on the patio,” Michelle Pao Levine said.

Mosa also does a large amount of catering business, including daily corporate catering gigs.

The menu consists of a fusion of Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese fare with a freshness rarely found in fast-casual restaurants. Mosa grows many of its own vegetables and herbs, preps everything each morning just before opening and purchases fresh vegetables and meats daily.

Eddie Pao, right, Xin Lin, center, and A-Ton Huynh cook in the kitchen at Mosa Asian Bistro, 850 S. White Station Road. Pao, who started Formosa Restaurant in the 1970s, opened the bistro with his wife and children. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Nothing is frozen or pre-packaged. Everything is extremely fresh,” Alex Pao said.

The Mosa staff prepares 25 homemade sauces each morning from scratch, and every ticket is made to order.

Mosa also boasts “the best hot and sour soup in the Mid-South.”

“A lot of people come from out of town just for the hot and sour soup. It’s my momma’s recipe, and they say you can’t beat it,” said Pao, who explained he learned many of his secrets from cooking with his mom when he was younger.

The Mosa menu includes primarily vegan-based dishes that are customized by combining preferred meat, heat, sauce and choice of brown or white steamed rice to any rice entree or meat and heat to any noodle bowl.

“The main menu is updated every year, and the seasonal menu is swapped out every three months,” Michelle Pao Levine said.

Mosa also rolls sushi rolls on Thursday nights, and it will begin serving Asian Farm to Table special dinners once the crop is harvested this spring and change the menu to include seasonal vegetables. The new menu will also have lighter selections for the Memphis heat like a new crunchy shrimp salad and a traditional Vietnamese sandwich called Bhan Mi.

Giving back to the community is very important for the Pao family. Mosa supports local organizations and companies such as Make-A-Wish Foundation, St. Mary’s Episcopal School, International Paper, New Memphis Institute, Ronald McDonald House, Youth Villages and the Memphis Zoo through in-kind donations and fundraisers.

“Today we are hand rolling 500 beef empanadas for a Brooks Museum event tomorrow night,” said Michelle Pao Levine. Mosa also prepared sushi for the 400-person event.

Next up, the restaurant plans to renovate a small area adjacent to its main dining area with a couple of TVs and a bar for watching the Tigers or Grizzlies games or having a drink during happy hour. More Mosa locations are a possibility in the future, with Midtown or Downtown being the most likely spots.