As I tumbled out of the Uber and joined my friends on the sidewalk, I was instantly captivated by the glowing neon sign that read “Food Terminal.” After the grand welcoming to the restaurant, I stepped inside only to be amazed by the sheer size of the place. Flood lights and tables seemed to stretch across the entire block, and servers were bustling around to deliver food to hungry customers. The atmosphere was electrifying, hyping me up even more as we sat down.
Having only truly lived in Atlanta for the last two weeks, I haven’t had much satisfying Asian cuisine. Despite my low expectations, I remained excited about the street food-esque setup of the restaurant. But right after glancing over our menus, we started shouting simultaneously at each other, obsessing over the pictures on the menu and the many iconic dishes that reminded us of home. Then I fell silent, thinking about my family.
Like many other international students, the pandemic has restricted my ability to see my dad and my extended family in China. So for over five years, not only have I not had a chance to see my family, but I am also homesick for those boisterous Chinese holidays and eating my grandfather’s home-cooked meals. The photos of Amy Wong, the owner of Food Terminal, and photos of the food on the menu only made me miss it more.
After immigrating to the U.S. from Malaysia over 30 years ago, Wong built an impressive career as a restauranteur, finally able to achieve the food dream she’s had since she was 10 years old.
“I could cook a lot of food,” Wong said. “But not a lot of people were able to eat it, so I wanted to open a restaurant and use it as a platform.”
Growing up, she juggled school and selling noodles on the street to make extra money to support her family. Every day, Wong would attend school in the morning, buy ingredients around noon and cook her noodles. Then from 6 p.m. to midnight, she would be on the street, trying to sell her noodles.
Wong says that she’s always been passionate and sensitive about food, glaringly evident by her 30 years of dedication to food service. However, Wong’s encouragement to build her business came in part from her children. One menu item, Grandma’s BBQ Pork, is her mother’s recipe. When she first cooked it for her children, they all loved it and urged her to sell it to the public — and Food Terminal was born.
“At first, we didn’t think [Grandma’s BBQ Pork] was anything special, but in the U.S., they don’t have anything like it,” Wong said. “When my daughters tried it, they told me it was so delicious, and we should sell it. As a result, we created Food Terminal with my mom’s dish at the center.”
While Wong loves experimenting with new ideas and coming up with original recipes — almost all the menu items are her own — she also enjoys going to restaurants to eat other people’s food. When she is able to visit Malaysia, Wong orders the restaurants’ most famous dishes. If she likes it, she talks to the chef and asks if she can take the recipe back to the U.S.
Malay cuisine is an amalgamation of numerous neighboring Asian countries like India, Thailand, China and Singapore. Despite the fact that Wong caters to a primarily American audience, she still tries to maintain the authenticity of food that she grew up loving. Malay curry is different from Thai curry because it borrows from Indian spices like saffron; likewise, it differs from Chinese cuisine due to its versatile use of coconut milk. In spicy food, Wong said, using coconut milk enhances its flavor.
“In Malaysia, Food Terminal is a fusion of small stalls with different types of foods that each street vendor sells,” Wong said. “But my restaurant combines all of them into one.”
When Wong works in the kitchen, she inspects every dish after it’s brought back. Did they finish everything on the plate, or was there food leftover? If there are leftovers, Wong remembers and tweaks her menu. She also said that nearly all of her staff members have been working with her for at least a decade. Wong has opened three restaurants in Georgia: Top Spice, Sweet Hut Bakery and Food Terminal. She aims to continue expanding her businesses around the country and bringing traditional Asian food for people to experience in the U.S.
Maybe at first glance, Food Terminal isn’t everyone’s first choice for a Friday night dinner. The menu is exceptionally long, the restaurant is large and the name is nothing unique. But after enjoying a bowl of noodles and talking to Wong, you’ll be dying to return.
I ordered the six-hour Braised Beef Noodle Soup and shared the Hainanese Chicken with a friend. The beef was tender, and the noodles reminded me of Lanzhou ramen. The long table that my friends and I sat at took me back to Chinese New Year dinners where so many people talk over each other. There’s something about reaching your chopsticks into the middle of the table to grab a piece of chicken, or across to your left to try some of your friend’s noodles that reinforce the narrative Wong had told me.
Despite being open for two years, the history of the Food Terminal is not just about how long ago it was erected, it’s a reflection of Wong, her daughters and all their customers — not to mention an ode to Malaysian food. Food Terminal is a product of Wong’s past, selling noodles as a student in school, her present as a successful restaurateur who adores her staff members and customers just as much as she loves food, and has a future that involves all of those who will continue to pass on their experience at Food Terminal.