A Taste of South-Asian Cuisine Has Found its Way Downtown
After almost 20 years, the dream of starting a South-Asian restaurant in Winston-Salem has finally taken form. Abdullah Alkafi and Hasan Furuque are both South-Asian men who have been waiting for the perfect time to open “Mystic Ginger.” Back in June they saw their chance and took it.
Alkafi and his partner Furuque are both from Bangladesh, but they hadn’t met until they came to the Americas. The two opened Mystic Ginger in mid-July for a soft open. From the start, their venture has been somewhat rough considering the long wait times and short staff. But, according to Alkafi, he sees a vibrant future for the downtown Indian bistro.
The restaurant stays busy throughout the week, but during the weekends the place is packed both inside and out. The restaurant has a relaxed but semi-formal aesthetic and a menu full of traditional South-Asian dishes. While smells of the traditional curries, tandooris and biryanis permeate the air, each dish has a slight spin considering their unique cooking style.
Their entrepreneurial story begins in the mid-90s when the two just happened to visit Winston-Salem from New York City. They thought how wonderful it would be to start a restaurant downtown. With how life is, their plan didn’t really take off until 2008. They wanted to make the first move in the process by getting a physical location. However, the 2008 financial crisis stopped them in their tracks. With this, they moved on in their lives. “Life moves on,” says Alkafi. “We just went our separate ways.”
Nonetheless, they kept believing in their idea and kept the Mystic Ginger online domain in their back pockets. It wasn’t until June of this year that things took off. The moment Alkafi got word from Furuque that space had opened downtown on Fourth Street, they made a move. The location was formerly occupied by O’Brien’s Deli. Alkafi says, “We talked and said [to each other]. ‘Why not give it a chance?'”
From there, they signed the lease on June 15 and opened their doors to the public on July 19. Furuque, the other co-owner, has lived in Winston-Salem for 12 years. While he has some experience managing restaurants in England, the venture is new for him as well as Alkafi. While they acknowledge their lack of experience has caused them to have a turbulent start, they believe their outsider approach has allowed them to run the business in a new way, “kind of like an experiment,” says Alkafi.
At the moment, Alkafi is focusing on “getting their act together.” While they understand the importance of finances, Alkafi says their priority is to “have the best food and service for the community.” For the past decade or so, the two have kept the dream of Mystic Ginger present and been cognizant of the costs required for the upstart and management. This has allowed them to focus on making the most authentic but palatable food for downtown Winston-Salemites. He acknowledges, though, the restaurant still has room to grow and sees them reaching their goals in the coming weeks.
A huge support for them has been the downtown community. While their start has been stressful in finding their optimal footing with service, the community has stuck with them. Alkafi says the support from the people has been wonderful and vital to their restaurant. Alkafi added that they already have their first regulars, including an UNCSA professor who comes in multiple times a week.
In their approach to running the restaurant, they are striving to not just connect with the local community but share culture through food and expand people’s tastes. While South Asian food isn’t a huge trend in Winston, Alkafi thinks that people want to try new things and take chances.
Amee Jailwala, a sophomore at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, visited the bistro out of curiosity and got Chicken Korma with her mother. “Coming from an Indian family, I am used to traditional South Asian cuisine.” Jailwala says, “What I found here was a new spin on dishes I have been raised on, and I have got to say, I have enjoyed what I had a ton.”
Alkafi’s favorite dish, Palak, Paneer is actually made very differently at Mystic Ginger than other South Asian restaurants. Palak Paneer is a pureed spinach-based dish that includes cubes of an Indian cheese called “paneer.” With everything being made-from scratch-from fresh ingredients, they make everything as the orders come in. For the Palak Paneer, instead of making the dish in the morning and reheating when people order it, they start the cooking right then and there and keep the spinach somewhat intact.
Alkafi says, “Winston is different than most cities; (it) has a unique character.” From the start, they felt that difference and it brought Furuque to live here permanently. While Alkafi lives in New York City, he visits often and more so now with the restaurant. Since almost a decade ago, he has seen downtown Winston change dramatically. “Back in 2008, there were few restaurants, and no one walked around town.” But now he sees the downtown scene as a much more vibrant and safer sect of the community.
Now, Mystic Ginger is still operating off a temporary menu and waiting to receive a liquor license. They plan to start a limited delivery service and see how they can tap into markets like students at Wake Forest University and Salem College. But, for the moment, they are working on the essentials and aren’t thinking far off in the future. “(We) can’t anticipate too much,” says Alkafi. “(We) just have to make adjustments as things happen.”