Inside Red Stix Asian Street Food, the aroma of fresh ginger and garlic is intoxicating. Uno Immanivong lifts the lid of a pot and ladles rice onto a plate. Ribbons of steam swirl in the sunlit kitchen where yakatori sticks of morsels of chicken, pork and steak submerged in a rich, silky umami marinade hiss over glowing binchotan wood.
Customers line up at the counter, studying the menu. Grill masters vigorously fan flames from behind a glass and layer noodles into bowls with fresh vegetables, pickled daikons and herbs.
Chef Uno, 42, a first generation Asian American of Laotian descent, is bringing the scents, sounds, and flavors from her childhood to Red Stix Asian Street Food, which opened just two months ago off Hillcrest Road in North Dallas.
A recent Saturday was one diner’s first visit.
“What did you think?” Chef Uno wants to know.
“The Damn Damn Noodles—damn they’re hot. My favorite.”
It’s Chef Uno’s mission to spice up the dining options in the Dallas metroplex with healthy enticing foods from her culture.
“These are the foods I loved as a child, juices of duck fat sizzling over open fires in the streets,” she says. “Nothing is wasted. The skin of chicken thighs are cut into recipes, the bones boiled for soup, flavored with herbs and bok choy we grew in our yard.”
Determination began as a child born in a Thai refugee camp.
Chef Uno’s grit has led her through a series of choices strung together by hope, some trials and plenty of successes, including numerous television appearances (ABC, EyeOpener TV, Fox, Cooking Channel) where she creates recipes and promotional cooking videos.
She was a banker before becoming a chef. She made her Dallas restaurant debut almost seven years ago with the creation of the hugely popular Chino Chinatown in Trinity Groves and Chef Uno Brands, a hospitality consulting firm.
The most recent opening of Red Stix in December in University Park comes after the closing of another Red Stix in March at Legacy Hall in Plano. She plans to open another Red Stix in May at The Shops at Mustang Station in Farmers Branch.
Some of her newest ventures are not with restaurants. Her goal is to make daily habits out of nutrition and healthy eating lifestyles for herself and others. Turning to technology for help, she is developing a fitness app that offers diet tips based on an individual’s metabolism, blood pressure, exercise habits, and existing conditions such as diabetes or cancer.
She is also creating more Asian food options for frozen home delivery services. Knowing healthy eating habits begin at an early age, she is working with the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district, where her daughter attends, to develop nutritional menus. Students will get a chance to vote on entree selections prepared by high school culinary arts students under the guidance of Chef Uno. She hopes to roll out new menu items this spring.
“Tacos, pizza, and egg rolls are favorites with kids and there are ways to make them healthy,” she says.
She is adding more fresh vegetables and reducing fat, salt, and meat.
“Once you get used to eating this way, you start liking the way it makes you feel, more alert and energized,” she says. “Then hopefully kids will want to eat healthier at home, too.”
It’s a regimen Chef Uno says she is implementing in her own life. Eating more healthy foods and exercising has helped her lose 20 pounds since July.
“It’s so easy in the hospitality business to get caught up in the cycle of fast-food runs and late nights eating and drinking with friends; over time it drags you down,” she says. “I regained my stamina when I began eating more healthily, just like I urge my customers to do.”
Her menus are inspired by time spent with her family in the kitchen and through their travels. In America, while their parents were away, she and her sister watched culinary shows starring famous chefs like Julia Child as the two of them pretended to be chefs themselves, preparing food for consumers.
At first, watching her parents work two or three jobs in the restaurant and catering business in order to make ends meet discouraged her from seeking a career in cooking. Her parents wanted her to get an education and a professional office job so she wouldn’t have the same struggles that they did.
So Chef Uno pursued a 16-year banking career, immersing herself into every aspect of the finance sector. She started as a part-time bank teller and became an underwriter, national sales training manager, cross-sell program developer, and eventually managed mortgage retail branches for Fortune 500 companies.
But she couldn’t shake her dream of nourishing people with food inspired by her childhood.
Her sister challenged her to audition for a reality cooking show with Anthony Bourdain. She took a few classes and prepared recipes with the help of YouTube. When he chose to mentor her, she knew she had to follow her senses back to the kitchen.
In 2013, Uno left banking to pursue her passion for cooking, applying her finance and leadership skills to open Chino Chinatown as her first restaurant and to build her brand.
At the new Red Stix location across the street from the Southern Methodist law school, diners are greeted by a large ink wall mural of a map of Asian cities and photo-worthy dishes. Personalized messages scribed by customers before the art was installed remain on the wall underneath. The 1,350-square-foot workspace-friendly space seats about 40 diners and features charging stations and places to hang computer bags and purses.
Red Stix’s second location in Farmers Branch will seat twice as many with a patio and a larger interior of 1,550 square feet.
“I want everyone who walks in to feel at home,” Chef Uno says.
Steamed duck fat rice, drunken and dan dan noodles, togarashi waffle fries and and banh mi sandwiches are among menu selections. Chef Uno’s Thai Salsa and yuzu ponzu sauces can be taken home along with grab-and-go bento boxes.
She is also working on a frozen cocktail in SMU’s colors of red and blue, featuring lychee with yuzu hibiscus granita on top.
Above the bar, yellow ceramic cat figurines bob and wave from glass shelves lined with beverage bottles. Known as Maneki-neko, meaning “beckoning cat,” the animated figures are thought to bring good luck.
But Chef Uno doesn’t rely on luck. Her success comes from hard work.
She reaches into a large white plastic bucket filled with water and pulls out a fat, dripping, bright orange carrot. She goes through 25 pounds a day of the vitamin-rich vegetable, adding ginger root and apples to concoct a beverage she calls “Orange You Glowing.” It’s wildly popular even though it’s not on the menu yet.
She also offers her juice recipe, “You’ve Got the Beet.” She goes through 20 pounds of kale a day for her juice she calls “Making It Rain Greens.”
She feeds the carrot into a grinder and flips the switch. The juicer rattles the counter as more customers filter in from the street.
“It smells so good in here,” one diner observes.
Chef Uno visits with him and helps him make a menu selection.
“Food brings people together like family,” she says. “Healthy food nourishes the body and mind to help us go out into the world and do great things.”