When Ronnie Yee's Chinese ex-pat parents opened the Imperial Garden Chinese Restaurant on Independence Boulevard — before Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China in 1972 — Chinese food was so mysterious, so exotic that Yee reports "only Charlotte women ordered the Chinese dishes. The men wanted steak." To be successful, the Yee family did what many ex-pats still do: Americanize their native dishes and add American dishes to their menu.
Today, restaurateur Yee has teamed with restaurateur and chef Tung Ngo, who moved to Charlotte from a Vietnamese refugee camp as an adolescent, to open Nom Nom Burger, an Asian-flavored burger joint. "It's full circle," notes Yee. "My parents served Americanized Asian food and this is Asian-inspired burgers."
In addition to Nom Nom, Yee owns the Kobe Japanese House of Steak & Seafood restaurant in Hickory, and Tung (his preferred singular name) has had a series of successful restaurants, including Sushi @ the Lake (CL reviewed it in 1999), which he starts and then sells.
Nom Nom, which means "yum yum" in some Asian communities, operates in an unassuming space (it's in its third incarnation as a fast, casual eatery) in Park Towne Village Shopping Center. You get there by descending a staircase, or taking an elevator, just off the parking lot. The indistinct surroundings include an open kitchen flanking one side while the other side offers a view of Woodlawn Road. The patio, with fountain, has a palpable suburban feel.
But once the dishes begin to arrive via an ambling server, smiles surround the table. From my first tasting, I loved Tung's play with flavors. Nothing is as it should be, allowing Nom Nom Burger to be a gateway from Asian to American cuisines and from American to Asian cuisines. Of course, the menu offers the Nom-Believer, a traditional bacon cheddar cheeseburger with all the fixings (delicious), and a bacon blue cheese burger. But in this town overrun by burger joints, Nom Nom offers all sorts of intriguing pleasures.
Their signature Nom Nom burger, a thick, premium grain-fed beef patty glazed with teriyaki sauce, a melty slab of provolone cheese, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, caramelized white onions rings and ginger orange marmalade, disappeared quickly after hitting the table. This burger is also available as one component of a slider threesome. Also on board are the improbably delightful pad Thai burger — a tamarind-accented sandwich crowned with bean sprouts, carrot slivers and a cloud of peanut aïoli — and a bahn mi sandwich. All of these are served on a soft bun, which does not work as well for the bahn mi, since a crusty baguette is essential to the taste. But the bahn mi bun is slathered with pork pâté and then is layered with a fine lemongrass-marinated grilled chicken breast, thinly sliced pickled vegetables and jalapeño, and sprigs of cilantro.
The ahi burger, a riff on a spicy tuna roll, is two burger-sized sushi rice patties embracing a quickly-grilled tuna steak with melting ribbons of avocado. A quick hit of the smooth wasabi mayonnaise and a drizzle of citrusy soy sauce complete the taste. Migrating eastward is the "Peeking Duck," a quartet of duck breast and smoked pork belly slices nestled into Chinese-styled pancakes doused with hoisin sauce.
The menu offers a full complement of starters, including the strictly Asian pan-seared pot stickers. Burgers and sandwiches are sided with shrimp chips, which look like Styrofoam and are benignly flavored, or French fries. Better than the shoestring potato fries — garlic, plain or jalapeño — are the bright and crispy, unpretentious sweet potato fries.
From the extent of the menu variety, and in terms of composition and virtuoso cooking skill, which includes panko-crusted grilled fish tacos in corn tortillas and the Korean kalbe burger with kimchi and a fried egg, Nom Nom Burger seems destined for more. But for now, having veteran local restaurateurs explore both their Asian and Charlotte culinary roots should be compelling enough for a visit. Besides, at Nom Nom Burger, you get to have it both ways.