98 Asian Bistro continues to anchor High Point’s evolving dining scene
98 Asian Bistro has been a favorite in the High Point dining scene since its opening in October 2014. That’s partly because of the fresh, flavorful fare—a fusion of Thai, Laotian and Cambodian cuisine—but for the restaurant’s regulars, the gracious hospitality of owner Tu Sen and her husband Todd is an equally important aspect that keeps them coming back.
Sen’s story is the embodiment of the American dream. She grew up in Laos, where her Indian father worked for the CIA during the Vietnam War. The family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand—where food was often scarce— for three years. In 1986, her parents undertook a harrowing journey across the Mekong River with their 12 and 13-year-old daughters (Tu is the youngest), eventually making their way to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York. Their first home in the States was a tiny New York City apartment, where Sen and her sister shared a bedroom. It was here that the sisters started their first restaurant endeavor.
“We lived in a home with several families,” said Sen. “My sister would cook a different dish every weekend, and I was the sales rep and delivery person.” This act of bonding with other refugee families over food came instinctually to the sisters. “Food has always been the way we show love,” she explains. “Cooking always kept us together.”
Eventually, some of the family made their way down south, and at 19—now a young mom—Sen relocated to High Point. “I’ve always worked in restaurants to support my daughter,” she said. That’s where she met her husband Todd, who is Cambodian, but grew up in Lexington and was raised on a typical Southern diet that included lots of barbecue. When her sister decided to open a restaurant in 1998, it was a family affair, with the entire family working side by side to make it happen.
Sadly, Sen’s father passed away just four months after that restaurant opened, but the sisters worked together for the next 17 years to make the family dream a reality. The restaurant became a High Point favorite and garnered many loyal patrons over nearly two decades.
“We were the first Thai restaurant in High Point,” said Sen. “People were used to Chinese food, and for two years we were in debt. I decided that every table that came in, I would sit with them and teach them about our food.” Over the years, her regulars became much more than customers—they became genuine friends and Sen’s biggest supporters. “When my family restaurant moved to Greensboro in 2012, it broke my heart,” she said. Having become attached to her many regulars and the city where she’d made roots and started raising her daughter, Sen decided it was time to open her own restaurant in the International City.
“I grew up with a mix of people, culture, food and music and always loved that,” said Sen. “When I moved here to North Carolina 26 years ago, there was none of that—everyone had their own corner. The main objective with my restaurant was to attract a wide variety of people.” The name—98 Asian Bistro—is a nod to the year her father died.
It took two years to build the space, which is magnificent. Large, airy, light-filled rooms instantly transport visitors to southeast Asia, starting with the life-size tuk-tuk—a motorized three-wheel taxi popular in Bangkok and other Thai cities—just inside the front doorway. A colossal Buddha watches over the main dining room, creating a powerfully peaceful vibe. On the other side of the bar—which is separated from the main by a high wall—is another dining area that boasts a large fountain with an elephant sculpture, colorful lanterns and lush bamboo plants. Each day, Sen blesses the space with sacred prayers that ensure visitors feel welcome, finances are good and the restaurant is operating well.
The food is a reflection of the Sens’ diverse heritage and world travels. Sen’s father was Indian, and her mother is Thai. “When we were little, my dad cooked lots of curries, and we were not allowed to eat unless we prepped something,” said Sen. Todd’s Cambodian roots, her time spent in Laos, and Chinese influences are reflected in dishes as well.
On the menu, you’ll find Thai favorites such as pad kee mow (drunken noodles), tom yum, tom kha, and pad Thai alongside yellow and pranang curry. Pho—a Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat—is also a popular item. One of the most beloved dishes on the menu is the larb—chopped chicken with cilantro, white and green onion, bean sprouts and rice dressed with fresh lemon juice and served with lettuce leaves for wrapping. “All of our meat and veggies are fresh and delivered daily,” said Sen. The couple also collaborates with local farmers.
Earlier this year, the restaurant underwent an expansion, taking over a large adjacent space that was formerly occupied by a mattress store. Now, the couple can host large parties and community events, something Sen—who loves to dance and entertain—is exhilarated about. “We’ve been booked every weekend so far,” said Sen. “My goal for the space is simply that I want it to be used by our community. We are hosting both Democrat and Republican parties. And anytime we have music, you will see people from 21-60 on the dance floor having fun.”
Now that High Point’s restaurant scene is evolving, locals have more choices about where to get a good meal, but 98 Asian Bistro is still a perennial favorite. Locals remember when their options were much more limited, and the warm hospitality and faith that Sen had for the Triad’s “third city” all along. In 2016, Sen won the High Point Chamber of Commerce Businesswoman of the Year Award. She continues to be the city’s biggest cheerleader and welcomes friendly competition because she is secure in her position among the city’s culinary and business leaders. “Some days, we are busier than others, and that’s okay,” she said. “A lot of exciting things are happening in High Point.”
We agree and are thankful the Sens saw the city’s potential from day one.
Davina van Buren is an award-winning freelance travel and food writer based in High Point. Follow her on social media at @highpointfoodie.
98 Asian Bistro is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m–2 p.m. and 5:30–9:30 p.m; Friday from 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5–10 p.m.; and Saturday from 5–10 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday.