Most Friday nights at the Canton Chinese Restaurant in Coral Gables, patrons see the eight members of the Ng family seated at a large table, bonding over large sharable plates. What they might not know: At the table are two pioneers of Asian cuisine in South Florida, Allan Ng, who started Canton in 1973, and his son, Abe Ng, who in 2000 founded the popular Sushi Maki chain.
Asian restaurants had been scarce in the Miami area until the Ng family arrived. Emigrating from Hong Kong, Allan and Betty Ng used food as their way to fit in and establish themselves in their new country.
“Miami is a melting pot of diversity, especially true for Latin food but when it comes to Asian food, there is no comparison, there is a lack of it,” Abe said. “Our Asian food is always to serve the Miami community and that’s how we designed our restaurants.”
There currently are two Canton restaurants, the original in Coral Gables and another in Dadeland North Shopping Center. Sushi Maki has seven full restaurants including the latest in Coconut Grove, a sales arrangement with Whole Foods and shops at University of Miami and Florida International University.
Miami, one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, has one of the lowest amounts of Asians. The latest U.S. Census report estimates that only 1.6 percent of the Miami-Dade County population are Asians.
The Ngs have spent their lives perfecting their craft. Abe grew up helping in the Canton kitchen until he graduated from Palmetto High School. He went Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration dreaming of one day being a restaurant owner like his father.
Abe, now 43, and his wife, Christina, met in Cornell and she helped create Sushi Maki. They didn’t want another Chinese restaurant to add to the competition, instead identifying that there wasn’t many Japanese restaurants in South Florida. Abe eventually went to the California Sushi Academy for basic training. Above all, they couple say they both love sushi.
“We wanted a humble neighborhood bar that is affordable, because sushi at the time was expensive and mysterious,” Abe said. “It wasn’t everyday eating, was special occasion, so that was the ethos, how to make it everyday comfortable.”
Said Christina: “We have been around long enough where some people could say the first time they ate sushi was from Sushi Maki. I think what we do is creative.”
In total, there are 18 locations of Sushi Maki throughout Miami-Dade and Broward counties. In May, the Ngs opened a 3,200 square-foot-restaurant (including outdoor seating) near Monty’s at 2550 S. Bayshore Dr. in Coconut Grove.
The other restaurants have been modernized to fulfill the needs of today’s generation of customers. Each location has free wifi and there are charging outlets at every table.
Also, Sushi Maki general sushi bar traditions by having women chefs behind the counter, and a diverse staff. It is common to hear Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Filipino spoken in the kitchens.
“Sushi Maki is fun. The thing is that it is not a company, it’s like a family, a family business. The way they do business is [like] a family so you feel comfortable,” William Koh, corporate chef of Sushi Maki, said during a Friday dinner with the Ng family. “They invite me to have dinner with them, and talk about everything from work, to private life, and church. We are like a close family.”
Koh attends the same church with the Ng family, the Chinese Baptist Church of Miami, and apart from the Ng’s family faith, Abe and Christina occasionally bring their three children (a boy, 13, and two daughters, 8 and 10) to keep them in touch with their heritage and culture.
“We are proud to be Asians and sometimes we had to talk to them about what it means to live in a community that does not have many Asians,” Christina said. “Anytime you are a minority you have to teach your children that you are different and you have to hold yourself up high … Someone said to my son, ‘Oh, what you are going to pull out your kung-fu moves?’”
Allan and Betty say they tried to make life easier in America for their children, Abe and Iva, by choosing the simplest and shortest names they could find.
Also, they have always supported Abe’s dream of being a restaurant owner, even though his first venture — a gourmet burrito restaurant, Wrapido — was a “massive failure.”
“He failed that badly, so he learned his first lessons then,” Allan said. “He could choose whatever he wanted to do, but he wanted to be an owner and I was happy with it. As a father, you have to be proud and back your children up 100 percent.”
Allan, 76, and Betty, 73, remain active in the Canton restaurants, still pulling 10 to 12 hours a day. And they eagerly look forward to Friday night dinners with their family.
“It’s difficult for immigrants but we both did it, and seeing them at dinner every Friday reminds me of it, it makes me happy,” Allan said. “And it also means that I get to see my grandchildren every Friday.”