By Emma Castleberry
Experience is worth its weight in gold in the restaurant industry. Tony Min Liu, owner of Green Tea Sushi & Japanese Restaurant, knows this is especially true for Japanese dining. Liu brings more than 35 years of experience in Japanese cooking and dining to his Asheville restaurant.
Liu worked for decades as a chef in New York before traveling to Asheville for a camping trip in 2003. “I immediately liked Asheville,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful mountain city.” During that visit, Liu tried a few local Japanese restaurants. “Japanese food in Asheville was really simple back then and some of the chefs were not great,” he says. “I decided I could do better and bring a lot of new ingredients and new styles to the Asheville restaurant scene.” Liu made the move to Asheville and founded Green Tea Sushi in 2004. The original restaurant could only seat about 18 people. The newly renovated space provides room for more than 100.
Liu has a well-defined formula for a successful Japanese restaurant. One vital component is the chef. The current chef at Green Tea has been with the restaurant for more than 15 years—an impressive retention rate in an industry known for rapid turnover. “My restaurant is different because of the chef quality,” he says. “The chef is the most important thing when it comes to sushi, much less important than the location.” Despite the fact that Green Tea’s location, a little off the beaten path down Patton Avenue, receives little foot traffic, the restaurant still has a consistent flow of customers. “If the sushi is good, customers will make the trip,” says Liu.
Also vital to the success of any Japanese dining experience is the quality of the ingredients. During his time in New York and growing up in Japan, Liu built strong relationships with fish distributors. “We order all of our fish from New York,” he says. “All the fish companies know me, so they always send me a great product. I drive to the airport to pick it up. It’s 24 hours out of the ocean. Even when I’m getting the most affordable price, it’s the highest quality one can buy.” When possible, Liu tries to source ingredients locally—especially vegetables.
Liu says this freshness influences what people are likely to choose from the menu. “Our tuna tataki is so popular because it really highlights that fresh, raw flavor of quality tuna,” he says. Other popular menu items include sweet, lightly fried Yuzu Shrimp, steamed Chilean sea bass and grilled Red Snapper. While Green Tea offers several authentic Japanese dishes, the menu also features a number of creative fusion options, such as Kimchi Pork, Thai Basil Chicken and spicy hot pot soups.
The atmosphere is the third and final component of Green Tea’s successful restaurant formula. Liu expanded his vision of a “Japanese country-style” environment with the expansion, which added a full bar and enclosed porch to the restaurant. The space evokes a sense of calm and order, while remaining casual and inviting. Liu is proud to have created a restaurant with such a loyal customer base, which he has worked hard to attain. “We are so busy, and it’s mostly with local customers,” he says. “We are so thankful for their loyalty and support.”