When Duc Tang received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Yale, he didn’t plan to use it to become the chef at a pan-Asian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. But, as Tang has discovered time and time again, there is only so much you can plan for in life. Most of the time, you just have to take what life throws at you and decide how you’ll respond to it.
Tang’s restaurant, Pacific Rim, originated as Kana, which was a small, family-owned Korean restaurant that opened in the early 1980s near the University of Michigan medical school. In a 1992 issue of the Ann Arbor News, one columnist wrote, “Kana is run by Byung Dok and Kun Hi Ko, fervent believers in the power of faith and the wisdom of ensuring customer satisfaction.” The column commends the “fun” nature of Korean food and mentions that that the restaurant emits an “enticing aroma.”
However, the year that column was written, Tang didn’t know Byung Dok or Kun Hi Ko. Nor did he know that he was heir to their restaurant. For all he knew, his life was setting him up to become a doctor and work in the medical field in underserved areas. At the time, that was his goal.
Tang is a Vietnamese immigrant who was born of Chinese-Vietnamese parents. His childhood fostered a curiosity for global foods and cultures. “I grew up with Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines,” he notes fondly. “Our family fled the country after the war. We were boat refugees and we lived in refugee camps in Hong Kong and the Philippines, so we were exposed to different cuisines, different areas. We finally immigrated to California in 1980 when I was almost nine years old.”
Tang attended Yale for undergrad and then pursued a graduate degree in theology, with the intent of attending med school shortly thereafter. However, he “took a detour” and came to Ann Arbor with Y.B. Ko, one of his friends from graduate school– who happened to be the son of Byung Dok and Kun Hi Ko, the owners of Kana.
“His parents retired in 2000 or ‘99, and he came back to Ann Arbor to take it over,” Tang explains. “He wanted to revitalize it so he thought to expand the cuisine to encompass other Asian cuisines like Vietnamese, Thai, and other southeast Asian cuisine. He remembered from grad school that I liked to cook. My two roommates and I, we cooked every night and invited friends over and had these large food parties.”
When Ko contacted Tang to ask if he would help him open Pacific Rim, Tang said yes because it “sounded like an adventure.”
“I had absolutely zero experience, but at the same time, I wasn’t quite ready to go to medical school, so I thought, okay let’s do it for two years and then maybe go to med school.” Tang laughs. “And it’s turned into eighteen years.”
As it turns out, Tang’s life path prepared him rather perfectly to run a restaurant. He loves to solve problems, which is what sparked his interest in medicine in the first place, but that translates quite well to the high-stress restaurant culture. Additionally, his childhood exposure to various Asian cuisines put him in a unique position to cultivate Pacific Rim’s Asian fusion cuisine, despite his lack of formal culinary training.
“[Pacific Rim] started out as a very more modest operation with more authentic Asian dishes, but after a little while, I got a little bored of that and wanted to be more creative,” he explains. “So it evolved from more modest to more fine dining.”
Pacific Rim began serving wine and Tang began playing around with the menu until it evolved into its current iteration, which Tang describes as “contemporary pan Asian cuisine.”
“It’s more of a reflection of my background, in terms of authentic Asian flavors but in a more contemporary context. Because I grew up mostly in California, so it has more western of sensibilities but authentic Asian flavors. It’s fine dining with lots of Asian ingredients. But it’s not just accents,” he is quick to clarify. “Oftentimes you’ll see a lot of dishes with little Asian accents. I wanted to keep the flavors more authentic, so I think of a dish I grew up eating and, say how how can I reinterpret it for Ann Arbor?”
Not only does Tang’s cultural background help shape the restaurant, but so does his passion for serving others.
“I feel like most people really feel something intangible when they eat here, and that’s because of our philosophy of offering hospitality, not just fine service,” he says. “That hospitality comes from authenticity in our interactions with the staff. They love working here, so the interactions with guests are very genuine, very friendly.”
This sort of hospitality doesn’t just come naturally. Tang works to ensure that the entire staff feels as passionately as he does about the restaurant.
“We do things to cultivate that sense of ownership,” he explains. “We have a staff meal every night where the whole staff sits around a table together. That’s kind of a loss in the restaurant world nowadays. We have the servers share the tips, so there’s no competition among them and they work together collaboratively. They tip out the kitchen, too, so there’s an appreciation for the kitchen from the front of the house and vice versa, so they work well together.”
Of course, this level of hospitality wouldn’t be appreciated just anywhere.
“Part of the restaurant’s success is because it’s in Ann Arbor,” Tang recognizes. “I think it has been well-received in Ann Arbor because people here definitely recognize the authenticity of the servers and respond well to it.”
People in Ann Arbor have a keen appreciation for “genuineness and authenticity” as Tang notes, as well as a palette for global cuisine.
“Oftentimes, people move here from big cities, East Coast or West Coast, so they feel at home here because there’s more culture in the food,” he explains. “For example, we get lots of faculty eating here, bringing their guest speakers or candidates for jobs. We always get comments that they like bringing them here because they want to impress that person, to say, hey, we have culture in Ann Arbor, we have good food.”
For Tang, running Pacific Rim doesn’t feel like he gave up his dream to go to med school. In fact, it’s just the opposite: He’s found a new dream, one he didn’t even know he had.
“In Ann Arbor, what I love is the ability for my family to integrate family life with work life and community life,” he says fondly. “We live just a few blocks down the street. My wife homeschools our kids, so they’re around all the time, and she’ll visit with them. They’ll walk downtown and we’ll eat together.”
That dynamic is what makes Ann Arbor so special, and it’s the reason that any small business owner in Ann Arbor can tell you that working in Ann Arbor isn’t a stepping stone on the way to your dreams– it is the dream. You never know where life is going to put you, but if it puts you in Ann Arbor, you’re pretty lucky. Just ask Duc Tang.