My experience at the “Food Terminal”, Malaysian cuisine
As I tumbled out of the Uber and joined my friends on the sidewalk, I was instantly captivated by the neon illuminated sign that read “Food Terminal”. After the great welcome at the restaurant, I entered to be amazed by the size of the place. Projectors and tables seemed to stretch out across the block, and waiters were busy delivering food to hungry customers. The atmosphere was electrifying, turning me on even more as we sat down.
Having only really lived in Atlanta for the past two weeks, I haven’t had very satisfying Asian food. Despite my low expectations, I remained excited about the restaurant’s street food setup. But right after taking a look at our menus, we started yelling at each other simultaneously, obsessed with the menu images and the many iconic dishes that reminded us of home. Then I fell silent, thinking of my family.
Like many other international students, the pandemic has restricted my ability to see my father and extended family in China. So, for over five years, not only did I not have the chance to see my family, but also feel homesick for those noisy Chinese holidays and my grandfather’s home cooked meals. The photos of Amy Wong, the owner of Food Terminal, and the photos of the food on the menu only made me regret it more.
After immigrating to the United States from Malaysia over 30 years ago, Wong has built an impressive career as a restaurateur, finally able to fulfill the culinary dream she has had since the age of 10.
“I could cook a lot of food,” Wong said. “But not many people got 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 streets to earn extra money to support her family. Every day, Wong went to school in the morning, bought ingredients around noon, and cooked his noodles. Then from 6 p.m. to midnight, she was on the street, trying to sell her noodles.
Wong says she has always been passionate about and sensitive to food, as evidenced by her 30 years of dedication to food service. Part of Wong’s encouragement to start his business, however, came from his children. One item on the menu, Grandma’s BBQ Pork, is her mother’s recipe. When she first cooked it for her kids, 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 something special, but in the US, 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 mother’s dish in the center.
While Wong enjoys experimenting with new ideas and coming up with original recipes – almost every item on the menu is her own – she also enjoys going to restaurants to eat other people’s food. When she can visit Malaysia, Wong orders the most famous dishes from restaurants. If she likes it, she tells the chef about it and asks if she can bring the recipe back to the United States.
Malaysian cuisine is an amalgamation of many neighboring Asian countries such as India, Thailand, China and Singapore. Despite the fact that Wong is aimed at a predominantly American audience, she still tries to maintain the authenticity of the food that she grew up loving. Malaysian curry is different from Thai curry because it borrows from Indian spices such as saffron; likewise, it differs from Chinese cuisine because of its versatile use of coconut milk. In spicy foods, Wong said, using coconut milk improves its flavor.
“In Malaysia, Food Terminal is an amalgamation of small stalls with different types of food that each street vendor sells,” Wong said. “But my restaurant combines them all into one.”
When Wong works in the kitchen, she inspects each dish after bringing it back. Did they finish everything on the plate or was there some leftover food? If there are any leftovers, Wong remembers them and changes his menu. She also said that almost all of her staff have worked with her for at least a decade. Wong opened three restaurants in Georgia: Top Spice, Sweet Hut Bakery and Food Terminal. It aims to continue to grow its business across the country and bring traditional Asian dishes to the people of the United States.
Perhaps 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 not unique. But after enjoying a bowl of noodles and talking to Wong, you’ll be dying to come back.
I ordered the six o’clock 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 my friends and I were sitting brought me back to the Chinese New Year dinners where so many people are talking to each other. There’s something about reaching for your chopsticks in the middle of the table to grab a piece of chicken, or on your left to try some of your friend’s noodles that reinforce the tale Wong told me.
Although it has been open for two years, the story of the Food Terminal isn’t just how long it was erected, it’s a reflection of Wong, his daughters, and all of their customers – not to mention ‘an ode to Malaysian cuisine. Food Terminal is a product of Wong’s past, selling noodles as a student at school, her present as a successful restaurateur who adores her staff and customers as much as she loves food, and has a future that involves all those who will continue to pass on their experience to the Food Terminal.