Saranya Makes it Look Easy
Tokyo Alley was cool downtown dining before downtown was cool
By Traci Burns
Photography by Matt Odom
“Is it my charm? It must be my charm!” Saranya Kusawadee says in response to being asked the secret to her restaurant Tokyo Alley’s steady climb to success over the past 27 years. She then throws her head back and lets out an exuberant laugh, one that any of her regular customers would immediately recognize.
“People say I make it look easy, and they ask me for advice,” she says, then shrugs.“But I don’t have any. It runs itself!”
Maybe, but Saranya’s not giving herself enough credit here. The restaurant, which managed to bypass the usual struggles and growing pains of an independently owned business, is thriving and beloved because she’s invested nearly half her life into making it a warm, friendly, comfortable-yet-chic destination for one of the most satisfying dining experiences in downtown Macon.
In 1985, Saranya left her hometown of Bangkok, Thailand, to attend Georgia’s Piedmont College, where she majored in Business Administration. She barely knew English at the time, and felt some initial culture shock, but her father, a Presbyterian preacher, encouraged her to stay and learn the language before making the decision to transfer somewhere else.
She did learn English, but never left Georgia. “I don’t like change; I like security,” she says. “I like to stay and put down roots.”
We can thank Saranya’s college roommate, Jackie Collins, for her becoming grounded in Middle Georgia. The roommate, from Warner Robins, encouraged Saranya to move to the midstate after graduation. She did, and took a job at Yamato on Riverside Drive, with burgeoning aspirations to open a restaurant of her own. Her other option was to move back to Thailand and become a missionary, which didn’t thrill her.
“I was having too much fun here,” she says, smiling.
The roommate later became a police officer whose beat included downtown Macon, and she’s the one who alerted Saranya to the Mulberry Street Lane storefront vacancy–or, as Saranya puts it: “She said, ‘Hey, there’s a little dark place in a little dark alley down here that’d be perfect for you. Go check it out if you don’t wanna go back home!’”
Think about downtown Macon in the early 1990s. Far from the busy, buzzing hub we’re familiar with today, the downtown of that era was mostly deserted, largely blighted, and perhaps the furthest thing from a practical location for a fresh-out-of-college young immigrant woman to open her own restaurant. So, of course, Saranya, unbothered, confident and a little bit in love with such a unique location, called her mother to ask for a small loan, and on March 25, 1992, Tokyo Alley opened its doors.
Every true Maconite knows the dish Tokyo Alley is most famous for: lemon chicken with a side of noodle salad. They’re both simple preparations–battered and fried boneless chicken tenders tossed in a tangy housemade sauce; chilled, creamy-sweet noodles with a little celery crunch and peppery bite–but the consistency and quality is unparalleled.
Here’s a mindblowing detail that speaks volumes: the same two chefs–a woman named Ning, and Saranya’s brother Ed–have worked every kitchen shift together for the past 20 years. They’re masters of their craft, and it’s evident in every dish they send out.
And Saranya sassily wants to remind you that if you want the real deal, you’ll have to come get it from her: “People have posted and shared copycat recipes for our noodle salad online, and I just look at them and laugh–what are these ingredients? Not even close!”
It didn’t take long for Saranya to build her customer base at Tokyo Alley, even though, as she says, “We never advertise! I’m shy, I don’t want to be on TV, and if people from The Telegraph came by and wanted to talk, I’d say ‘No, thanks!’ I prefer word of mouth.”
Back in the days before Yelp and Google took up permanent residency in our pockets, word of mouth had some serious cachet, and Tokyo Alley became a hidden treasure. The quirky location and intimate, funky décor made for great ambiance. Saranya’s cheery, welcoming presence–and the way she remembered her guests–cemented the restaurant’s reputation as one of the best in town.
“As people got to know me, they’d say, ‘You’re from Thailand, where’s the Thai food?’” Saranya says, “So we started to add new dishes a few at a time–green curry, red, panang, pad thai. We always wanted to keep it simple.”
Specials and new items still show up on the menu from time to time–a recent favorite is their creamy and spicy Bangkok sauce, which is served over your choice of fried chicken or shrimp.
“Lemon chicken has been number one for the past 27 years,” Saranya says, “but Bangkok is catching up!”
At the end of last year, Saranya purchased the Cherry Street storefront that sits adjacent to the back of Tokyo Alley. She wasn’t expecting to find that the previous occupants, Macon Beauty Supply, had left behind the entirety of their stock, so she is now the proud owner of a new property and dizzying array of wigs, mannequin heads, costume jewelry, pantyhose and the like.
Dubbed The Doobie Shop on Cherry (after Saranya’s beloved Yorkshire Terrier, Doobie), Saranya’s still in the process of figuring out what the space might hold and what to do with all those wigs.
In the meantime, next time you’re strolling down Cherry, look for the window with the cherry blossom-festooned colorful portrait of a cute pup’s face. Look closer and you might be able to catch Sir Doobie reclined on a sheepskin chaise in the front window of his shop, in true diva fashion.
To hear her tell it, Saranya’s experience owning and operating a successful restaurant that has grown into an icon of longevity and excellence in our now-revitalized downtown has been easy, a piece of cake.
She says it’s like the place is on autopilot. But the thing about autopilot is that it’s programmed by somebody; there’s an expert involved to teach the machine how and why to navigate. That’s what Saranya’s life’s work has been–occupying the perfect-for-her niche both in location and in cuisine, curating and maintaining loyal and skilled team members, crafting a menu that offers reliably delicious comfort food but doesn’t shy away from innovation, and becoming a bright spot in the days of so many of the adoring customers who enter that calm little oasis.
Saranya makes sure her customers are well-fed and well-loved; she keeps up with families, has served noodle salad to children as they grow up, get married, and bring their own children in to eat. In a hyper-busy, corporate-restaurant-clogged environment, that kind of personal involvement is rare, and we’re lucky Saranya chose us as the soil to anchor her sometimes-wild roots.
“Macon has been so welcoming,” Saranya says. “I left home when I was17, so now I’ve lived here longer than I lived there. So, this is my home, and it feels like it’s my home, too.”
574 Mulberry Street Lane, Macon
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 5-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday