A decade ago, Philadelphia's Chinatown was a much more homogeneous place. It was, after all, Chinatown: blocks of restaurants, groceries, and bakeries from all over China, with a smattering of Vietnamese restaurants, a Malaysian place, and, for more exotic palates, a Burmese restaurant.
Jimmy Shen — who bused tables when he came to this country from China, which led to his investment in food-court restaurants — had a different idea for the restaurant he was planning for a former supermarket on 11th Street between Race and Vine.
Not the more formal style of Japanese dining that you would have found at Shogun, a long-closed Chinatown destination, or at what is believed to be Chinatown's first Japanese restaurant, Asakura at Tokyo Center at 1207 Race St., which was razed years before for the Convention Center.
Shen's restaurant would specialize in yakitori, the Japanese-style skewers. Of course, there would be sushi. And karaoke, which was popular enough but typically enjoyed at corner bars' karaoke nights and in the odd back room of a restaurant.
And so at the end of 2007, Yakitori Boy opened at 211 N. 11th St. with a full bar and table seating downstairs, as well as a bar upstairs with a karaoke projection system and eight private, sound-proofed rooms. Since the opening, karaoke has exploded in Chinatown, and so has the dining scene.
Shen, 53, has expanded in Chinatown with Terakawa Ramen; he also owns Teriyaki Boy in Princeton and Ramen Kumamoto in Newark, Del. We sat down for a brief chat last week.
How did Yakitori Boy come to be?
Twelve, 13 years ago, our group wanted to open a big restaurant, and we wanted to do things in Chinatown. Plus, one of my partners owns the building. He said, 'Come on here. The business will be good for you.' This is a big space, but we said we'd take it. Then we asked [ourselves], 'What did we want to go for?' We went to New York and ate yakitori. Then we went to karaoke bars and we went to sushi places. One day, we said, 'Why don't we open all of those in one place?' We made three all together in one restaurant.
How do you keep the ideas fresh?
I always go to New York to learn something and bring it back — whether it's sushi or teriyaki. You have to keep the customer happy. We saw tuna tataki there [years ago] and started serving it. We're also always upgrading the karaoke equipment. It's expensive.
How was business in the beginning?
It wasn't so good. But with other new things coming into Chinatown, people came to try us. About three months later, business really started to get better. People started talking about us. Every year, it gets better.
Who are your customers?
Asian customers from different countries started coming here at first. Especially after the first couple of years, we have many more American customers. Now, 70 percent are American, and I think 80 percent of them are locals — the rest are tourists.
Do you sing?
What's your song?
John Legend's "All of Me."
Do you sing here?
Yes. When regular customers ask. I have to.
Server Pat Bowden ran down the list of most-sung karaoke songs. The top four, in no particular order: