Although he has lived in America for most of his life, Eddie Pao, the chef/owner of Mosa, a month-old Pan-Asian bistro at Poplar and Kirby, insists that his English isn't very good. He makes frequent apologies for misunderstanding questions or repeating himself, but Pao's linguistic problems don't prevent him from translating a bit of ancient Chinese wisdom.
"If 50 people are unhappy, but 400 people are happy, you're doing very good," he says with a meaningful nod. "BUT! If there are 50 happy people and 450 are unhappy people, then you are not doing so very good." So maybe Pao's not so good with the sage aphorisms either. But he's still got a track record for making people happy and keeping them happy. For 28 years Pao's first restaurant, Formosa on Summer Avenue, was widely regarded as having the best Chinese food in Memphis, and that opinion was frequently reflected in local dining polls. When the Summer location closed last year, Memphis' gastronomic hipsters mourned even though the Formosa on Quince continues to serve the same food, prepared to Pao's high standards.
"I have a way of mixing the vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce," he says of his Szechuan brown sauce. "I teach it to others, but - I don't know - it just seems so very easy to me."
When Pao closed the Summer Avenue Formosa, he claimed he was getting older and just wanted to slow down a little. But even as Pao was slowing down, he was also planning to speed things up. Mosa, which operates with the efficiency of a fast-food restaurant by day but a more traditional bistro atmosphere at night, has been three years in the planning. If the first restaurant is successful, Pao plans to open another, and maybe another, and another. The sky's the limit!
"I think downtown is a good place right now," Pao says. "Lots of office workers who want a good fast lunch that is also healthy."
While the original Formosa was a classic Chinese restaurant, with its fortune-cookie color scheme and dragon and phoenix menu, Mosa is the polar opposite. With its blond wood paneling and long banquette, Mosa has been stripped of all kitsch and infused with a lean elegance. For all its austerity, it still has flavor. The black-and-white place settings highlight Pao's simple cuisine. The gleaming two-alley kitchen is open, and wok burners shoot flames like a jet engine.
"I learned a lot from looking at [open] American kitchens," Pao says. "And at 450 degrees, the food cooks very fast."
So you want to do Mosa from top to bottom? You want an appetizer, a soup, a salad ...
"No! You cannot eat that much. Nobody can eat that much. My salads are big," Pao insists. "I had construction workers in here once, and they didn't eat so much, but the salads were all gone. Ah-HA!" Still, Pao does recommend his chicken wraps, which are stir-fried in a garlic sauce and wrapped in a crisp lettuce leaf, as either a light lunch or an appetizer. His favorite entrees are Kung Pao (chicken, beef, or shrimp) with carrots, broccoli, and red pepper and also the Singapore Curry, which he describes as "very special."
"I don't use dried peppers in my Kung Pao," Pao explains. "I grind my peppers into powder because nobody eats the peppers. But if you like the burn, you will taste my Kung Pao and say, 'That's not so spicy - oh wait, that is spicy.'"
Pao is interested in developing Mosa as a franchise and has had some offers, but he's cautious about expanding too quickly.
"The Formosa name means something to me," he explains. "When people hear 'Mosa' I want them to think 'good.' And if I'm going to [have a franchise] I want [investors] to be able to make a lot of money." With its speedy service, sleek, easily replicated design, and a menu that's composed of proven Formosa classics and other quickly prepared Thai and Japanese dishes, Mosa seems designed to do exactly that.
"You know, this building was first a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and it went out of business," Pao says. "Then it was a barbecue restaurant, and it burned. A lot of people have told me that this place is unlucky. But I don't think it's unlucky. It's a good location, and I feel lucky here."
Mosa, 1825 Kirby Parkway (at Poplar), 755-6755