A popular Japanese food truck now has a permanent home. On May 27, Don Express opened its brick-and-mortar restaurant at 472 Knollwood St., in a former Subway location just off Stratford Road, behind Arby’s.
Mari Phillips, a native of Japan, and her husband, James Phillips, started Don Express in October 2019 as a food truck to share some of her favorite kinds of Japanese street food. Don Express sells such items as ramen, yakisoba (buckwheat-noodle stir-fry), gyoza pot-stickers and chicken katsu (breaded, fried chicken).
James Phillips, who grew up here, met Mari while he was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Navy.
James Phillips, an electrician, spent the last few months overhauling the space on Knollwood. “My husband did everything,” Mari Phillips said.
A big part of the renovation entailed building the cooking area in the middle of the building. Shielded by glass windows on two sides, customers can easily see their food being prepared.
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The quick-service, casual restaurant is small, with a few seats at the custom wood counter, plus table seating for 12 inside and about 16 outside.
It offers counter service, and all food is served in takeout containers.
Mari Phillips said that the truck will be sidelined at least for a while, while Don Express focuses on getting the restaurant running smoothly. Later, it probably will be put back to limited use, for catering and special events.
“Quality is my No. 1 priority — quality, and customer service and consistency. Right now, it’s either the store or the truck,” she said, adding that she has limited staff at the moment.
She has taught her 20-year-old son Kai to do a lot of the short-order cooking. “He started on the truck with me when he was 17, and he’s going to be going to Johnson & Wales,” she said.
She also has help from friends Daisy Martell Salinas and Sasha Suzuki, as well as her husband.
Mari Phillips is on a mission to share her love of authentic Japanese food. “Most restaurants have Americanized Japanese food. I have been waiting till North Carolina was ready for authentic Japanese food,” she said in 2020 shortly after launching her food truck.
Don Express on Knollwood will offer a fairly extensive menu, considering the small kitchen — a challenge that Mari Phillips was able to tackle on the truck. In fact, the new restaurant will offer pretty much the same menu as the truck. The one difference will be that a few occasional items now will be available all the time.
Don Express offers such appetizers as gyoza ($7) and seaweed salad ($6). The tonkotsu ramen is a chicken and pork broth with marinated hard-cooked egg, scallions and bamboo shoots. It is available with chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu ($16 to $19).
Street-food specialties include yakisoba (stir-fried noodles with vegetables and choice of protein, $15 to $18), Takoyaki (octopus inside a crispy ball of dough, $8), and okonomiyaki (savory pancake with pork and vegetables, $17).
Rice bowls ($16) are available with plain or curry chicken katsu and chashu (pork belly).
Don Express also has bento boxes that come with mixed greens, seaweed salad, Japanese potato salad, steamed rice and more. The boxes are available with karaage (Japanese fried chicken), chicken katsu and grilled tofu ($17 to $19). A deluxe bento ($27) comes with beef short ribs, squid salad and spring roll.
Mari Phillips said she later may add such items as Japanese rice balls and homemade miso soup. She also said she eventually hopes to offer a few items already prepped and packaged in a refrigerated display case for grab-and-go-meals.
Don Express will have green tea and other beverages. It does not have ABC permits yet, but plans to have Japanese and local beer, as well as sake.
Mari Phillips said she is excited to switch from truck to a restaurant for several reasons. One of them is that she will be able to serve more people.
“It turns out a lot of people really like Japanese street food,” she said.