Chugiak residents Shoua Lee and Cheng Li didn’t come to Alaska to open a restaurant. They moved to the 49th state for pure water, fresh air and beautiful scenery.
The couple, who previously lived in Michigan, became interested in relocating to Alaska after watching YouTube videos. They took the plunge without even visiting.
Lee and Li were looking for jobs shortly after arriving in 2015. They drove by a vacant restaurant attached to American Legion Post 33 in Chugiak.
Lee, who has owned and operated restaurants since 1990, wasn’t interested. Her husband had other ideas. “Your food is good. Just open one more,” Li told her.
Fried Rice Express debuted in July of 2015. The menu is an extensive and diverse mix of Chinese and Thai cuisine. So far, they have a Yelp score of 4 out of 5.
It’s an unlikely spot for a restaurant. Located off Old Glenn Highway, near a Baptist church and a small apartment complex, there isn’t much else. Legion members comprise about half of their customer base.
The décor is a unique mix of Asian culture and Alaskan pride. Guests are greeted at the door by two golden lions. Ornate elephants decorate the front counter. Behind the register, a large wooden map of Alaska is attached to the wall and several antelope heads are scattered throughout the dining room.
The restaurant seats 72 and is a comfortable mix between casual and formal dining. Li recommends the yum salad – which is steak with fish sauce, lime juice, chili, cilantro and onions on a bed of lettuce and cucumbers – while Lee favors green curry, pad thai, and the house specialty, which is the Fried Rice Express Combination.
For Lee, there’s an easy way to cook fried rice – and then there’s the traditional way. She’s clear which method she embraces. She soaks the rice overnight and cooks it twice. “If you make good rice, you can just eat it plain. Then you can add anything,” Lee said. To make the Fried Rice Express Combination, Lee adds peas, carrots, onion, egg, shrimp, beef, pork, and chicken.
Lee focuses on fresh ingredients and makes everything from scratch. She has an uncomfortable relationship with microwaves. “Even for myself, I don’t microwave my own food,” she said.
While Lee does most of the cooking, Li appears to do everything else. He was a blur of action – answering phones, serving customers, cleaning equipment. He’s proud of their customer service. “It’s not for us, it’s about them,” Li said. “We’re friendly and we listen to our customers.”
The couple works between 14-16 hours each day. Despite the long shifts, Lee said they are happy in Alaska. She said the people are friendly and she feels accepted. “In Alaska, everybody understands about Asian people. I feel like they don’t discriminate,” Lee said. “I’m looking for opportunity to stay here. I want to bring all my children here.”
He has four children from a previous marriage and Li has five.
Lee and Li share a similar life story. They were both born in Laos. They escaped to Thailand during the Vietnam War and lived in refugee camps. After several years of camp living, they were granted refugee status and came to the U.S. in the early 1980’s. They met at a restaurant. Lee was the owner and Li was a businessman who ate there. They married in 2007. They are now American citizens. They speak four languages: Laos, Thai, Hmong, and English.
Members of the military have a special place at Fried Rice Express. On the 11th day of each month, current service members and veterans get a 30 percent discount with military ID. The couple chose to keep an enormous mural that came painted on one of their restaurant walls. It depicts U.S. soldiers raising the American flag while under attack.
Lee pointed to the mural. “Military people keep our country safe,” she said. “I feel safe here.”
Fried Rice Express is located at 21426 Old Glenn Highway, Chugiak, AK 99567.
Monday: 4-9 p.m. | Tuesday thru Saturday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. | Sunday: 12-9 p.m.
Dine in and take out