"A lot of people were doing restaurants in America,” Cai said. “Right now, if you go to any Chinese restaurant or Japanese restaurant, [the owners] are mostly from my hometown.”
Following in their footsteps, Cai can now count himself among the Fuzhou natives who ventured to the states to start their own business; Cai moved to the U.S. in 2010 and opened Airi Poke & Ramen in New Caney in 2018. Two years later, he opened a second location in Cypress, and he also plans to open a third in Baytown in February.
The restaurant features traditional Japanese and Asian-inspired dishes, all of which are prepared entirely in-house with fresh ingredients, Cai said.
Despite opening three restaurants in less than four years, however, Cai said the restaurant business has not come without its challenges.
“A lot of customers complained, ‘Hey, your food is no good. I don’t like it,’’’ Cai said.
Taking that criticism to heart, Cai went to Japan to study the intricacies of preparing ramen from scratch. He said it did not take long for his customers to notice the difference in quality, which prompted Cai to return to Japan the following year to focus on appetizers.
Today, some patron favorites are the spicy tuna poke bowl, miso soup and beef ramen, Cai said.
Like most restaurants, Cai said Airi Poke & Ramen was hit hard by COVID-19; however, he said it also opened his eyes and his heart to New Caney.
“COVID let me know that if you want to do good business, you need to be there for your [community],” he said, noting he sets aside 1% of sales each month to donate to local nonprofits. “[The community] is almost your family. You are here. You are a member. If they do something for us, we need to do something for them.”
Airi Poke & Ramen
21372 Hwy. 59, Ste. 300, New Caney
Hours: Sat.-Wed. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Thu.-Fri. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.