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Long-time Memphis restaurant makes resurgence after 2020 tragedies

Published: Sep. 19, 2021 at 9:50 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For 30 years, the restaurant Nam King served authentic Chinese food to Memphis customers in several locations throughout the city.

By 2020, the restaurant was down to its last location, in Raleigh on Austin Peay Highway.

COVID-19, like with many restaurants, made things hard to keep the doors open, especially for a restaurant like Nam King that depended on its buffet option.

The restaurant and its owners, the Zhao family, were surviving on take-out and catering options, but in November 2020 the restaurant’s doors would close.

“Thirty years, working hard, burned down in one night,” said Bonnie Zhao, the current owner of Nam King.

A breaker short caused a kitchen fire in the early hours of November 7, 2020, a day the Zhaos say they will never forget.

“We wanted to go inside to save as much as we can, but at that time the fireman said ‘It’s too dangerous. You can’t go,’” Zhao said. “The whole family stood outside in the parking lot. We cried, and we couldn’t do anything.”

Bonnie, a second generation Chinese American, took over the restaurant from her uncle in-law, Adam Zhao, eleven years ago, and after the fire went right to work looking for Nam King’s next location.

It was her goal to have a legacy to pass to the family’s next generation.

Collierville, Cordova, Bartlett, she looked everywhere before finally finding a place back in Raleigh.

“We wanted to stay in the same neighborhood because we love the neighborhood and we love the customers, a lot of good friends here,” Zhao said.

Nam King’s new location is in the Raleigh Oaks Plaza on Austin Peay Highway, coincidentally right across the street from the location that caught fire.

For nine months, the Zhao family worked on fixing up their new spot, putting in the kitchen and getting everything up to code, all the while getting calls from loyal customers.

“We kept the same number from the old restaurant, so (customers) kept calling,” said Zhao. “‘When are you opening? When are you opening?’”

The restaurant reopened in late August.

The new location is a different take from what Nam King was used to, very limited seating with no buffet.

Zhao says they’re leaning more toward take-out, catering and delivery with DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Nevertheless, customers are excited to walk back through the doors of Nam King.

“(Customers) are just like ‘Oh! I’m so glad you’re open! I’ve been looking for you,’” Zhao said.

“Inspiring is a good word for it,” said long-time customer Tom Stoll.

Stoll started coming to Nam King when it first opened in the mid-90s, going to different locations, and told us the Zhaos have been like a family to him and his family.

“I live in Collierville now,” Stoll said. “I still come from Collierville almost every week to stop by here and patronize the restaurant just because of that type of inspiration.”

For a time, Bonnie’s dream of having a legacy to pass on to the next generation was in jeopardy.

Now, with the support of the neighborhood and surrounding community, Zhao feels that legacy is secure.

“Ups and downs, but we finally made it,” Zhao said.

Nam King is open every day from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

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