Restaurant fuses mix of Asian and American flavors

“50-Fifty” is not only the name of Claremont’s latest eatery, an Asian fusion restaurant that opened in Village West earlier this month. It’s the phrase owner Joyce Johnson fondly uses in embracing her established life in the United States while paying tribute to her Thai roots.

With her latest concept, Ms. Johnson shares a little of her proud mixed heritage, bringing together a bit of her favorite Thai and Asian cuisine with what she has come to know and appreciate across the globe.

Ms. Johnson mixes the offerings on her menu between expected Asian-American dishes—fried rice, noodle and stir-fry—and a variety of her own fusion creations. In one such concoction, Ms. Johnson takes short ribs and adds her own flavoring of soy, fresh ginger and Mirin, a Japanese rice vinegar, along with shiitake mushrooms and seasonal Asian vegetables like bok choy.

“It’s east meets west,” Ms. Johnson said. “The fusion has allowed me to be creative with my food.”

Ms. Johnson, the owner of Bangkok Blue in La Verne for nearly a decade, is no novice to the restaurant industry. Before that, she worked in management at the Panda Restaurant Group, Inc. for 2 years and as associate manager at Benihana for another 5 years. But opening her own eatery was always in her blood. In fact, she was one of the last of her siblings to follow suit with her own culinary establishment. It has provided her with no shortage of advice in starting her own eateries and she proudly mentions that one of her advisors, her brother, was honored as Sydney, Australia’s best chef.

“We share recipes and ideas,” she said.

Ms. Johnson credits her father for instilling the culinary itch in each of his children. Though he died when she was young, she hasn’t forgotten the taste of his crispy noodles, clay pot taro rice and pork stew. And she vividly recalls his generosity in sharing his gift for cooking with others.

“He would always cook big portions and would ask me to take a sample to all the neighbors,” she recalled. “Everyone loved his cooking.”

She emulates his creativeness in the kitchen with her own style of cooking. Just as her father’s Chinese background influenced the food she remembers eating as a young child, her potpourri background comes through in her Asian fusion menu. One of her favorite dishes, Ming’s Wings—named after one of her favorite people, her son—is a unique approach to the classic American chicken wings dish. In this interpretation, Ms. Johnson tosses the crispy chicken in rum-infused sweet and spicy glaze.

“I wanted to create something unique, something more than just Tabasco,” she explained.

Her 22-year-old son has come to love his namesake dish so much, Ms. Johnson shared, that he is considering opening up a Ming’s Wings food joint in his current hometown of San Francisco.

Each of the unique sauces and creations are a masterpiece of Ms. Johnson’s imagination. She says she is often driving or reclining with her eyes closed when genius strikes. Such was the case for her Wok-Fired Asian Noodle, featured on the 50-Fifty menu. The rice noodle dish is fired up with sweet soy, bean sprouts, scallions and the customer’s choice of meat.

“It just popped into my head. The ideas don’t come while working in the kitchen. They always come from here first,” she said, pointing to her head.

First-time customers Paul and Cindy Grino dined on the wok specialty Thursday afternoon along with one of their favorite go-to dishes, curry. While the couple admitted they have high standards for the saucy delicacy, they noted that Ms. Johnson’s ranks near the top.

“The flavor is great. It has just the right amount of spice,” Mr. Grino said.

After a busy day at work and driving her sons to and from Damien High School, Ms. Grino said she was pleased with the restaurant’s ambiance. They layout of the establishment, at the former WineStyles site, is a particular source of pride for Ms. Johnson, who sought to capture a tranquil atmosphere with a trickling waterfall wall and wood-slat ceiling.

“I wanted it to be warm and relaxing, yet open. And I wanted to have my counter area,” Ms. Johnson said referencing her black-top bar area. “I wanted a place the customers could sit down while waiting for a table and be comfortable.”

In setting up her own shop, Ms. Johnson hasn’t forgotten her father’s welcoming spirit. While having a hand in all the recipes and action behind the stove, Ms. Johnson is a regular fixture in the front of her restaurant, happily greeting customers or helping servers with the orders.

“It’s the most important thing to me,” she said. “I am a people person. Every customer that comes in the door brings me joy.”

She hopes the attention to detail, along with her unique cuisine, will catch on.

“There’s a little something on the menu for everybody that you won’t get anywhere else, and I’m more than happy to cook whatever it is they are looking for,” she said. “They are all my creations.”

Ms. Johnson promises to continue to expand her menu as she dreams up new delicacies. 50-Fifty Asian Fusion is located at 201 N. Indian Hill Blvd. next door to La Parolaccia in Village West. For information, call 621-5599.

—Beth Hartnett


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