This story is part of “Asian in Ohio,” an interactive gallery exploring the landscape of Ohio and the Asian and Asian American individuals who call it home through narratives, data, mapping and film.
When you walk into Kay’s Table, you’re not just passing through doors: you’re entering Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Taiwan all at once.
Engulfed in a steamy atmosphere of aromas, you’ll detect the fragrance of kaffir lime leaves in one corner. In another, you’ll catch the scent of Khao Poon or fresh Hmong Larb. You’ll hear one customer’s crunch of a crispy spring roll or Banh Mi, while another takes a sip of Chicken Pho, tasting a rich broth unlike any other.
For Kay Xiong, the owner, this is a space of sights, sounds and smells she knows by heart — by tongue. She knows it as the home she grew up in — the home she escaped over sixty years ago during the Vietnam War.
“As a little girl, I remember walking from house to house, to my grandfather’s, my uncle’s house,” Xiong said. “My dad held my hand knocking on everybody’s door and said, ‘We’re going to be leaving; you guys need to make preparations and you guys need to leave, before the country is really overrun.’”
When you sit at Kay’s Table, you’re immersed in her history. From her father, an army soldier, helping the family disguise themselves for safety, to crossing the Mekong River, Xiong recounts another set of sights and sounds — starkly different from her restaurant’s.
“We went from refugee camp to refugee camp to refugee camp,” Xiong said. “It was hush-hush.”
In 1976, after finally being granted passage to the U.S., Xiong and her family flew to Erie, Pennsylvania. But back in 1976, “nobody knew about Asians,” she said. It was only when her parents participated in an adult education program sponsored by St. Stephen’s Parish that they met other Hmong and Vietnamese refugees.
“They missed the food, they missed Pho, they missed fish and things like that,” Xiong said. “Food was the common denominator that linked them all together.”
Xiong continued to witness the importance of food in connecting Asians in America when she realized ingredients that were once staples in her home weren’t present in her new one.
“I remember growing up [and] my mom would make faux Pho,” Xiong said. “We call it ‘faux Pho’ because that was spaghetti.”
Fortunately for them, Xiong’s mother snuck over cilantro seeds and green onions, which they grew and added to her meals in remembrance of home.
“We would use a little bit of it and it was like such a big commodity,” Xiong said. “That’s how we ate.”
In Erie, alongside their food, Xiong consumed as much knowledge as she could, studying English to become an interpreter for her family.
“Monetary materialistics could be taken away from you,” she said, recounting a lesson her father taught her in reflection of their escape. “But what do you have in your brain, nobody can take that away from you unless they take your life away.”
Keeping her values in mind, Xiong came to study Chemistry at Gannon University — where she also met her husband, a Vietnamese emigrant who also escaped from the Vietnam War.
But like finding authentic ingredients, early life in America was far from simple.
“I felt like I had one foot in the door of being an American and one foot in the door of being Hmong,” Xiong said. Tensions were rife when her Hmong American identity — especially as a woman — was brought to question by her husband’s family.
“Many of the Hmongs are mountaineers — where you worked hard, and were not highly educated. So, [my father-in-law] thought I was like that,” Xiong said.
Defying this stereotype, Xiong became an ER physician assistant, moving to California and then later to the Toledo area with her husband. As they built their life in the Glass City, food still remained a constant in Xiong’s mind. When her children started school, she started cooking for school gatherings like faculty appreciation events — gaining great support from members of the community.
“After a while, I thought, there are people here that don’t know anything about authentic Asian, Southeast Asian food. I’ve been feeding my neighbors and the schools, many of them and the kids. And I just thought, we really need to bring awareness [of] the Asian community,” Xiong said. “So that’s where the restaurant came in.”
For Xiong, founding Kay’s Table was rooted in authenticity — showcasing the diversity of Asian cuisine, especially for people unfamiliar with it.
“I wanted to bring all the authentic flavors to town,” Xiong said. “So, when I did this — because with my background of being Hmong, we eat Lao, Thai, Hmong, and Vietnamese food — I really, really wanted to incorporate that. I really want to make our dishes authentic.” In 2018, Xiong applied for an LLC for her restaurant.
Remaining true to authenticity was difficult for Xiong in a place like Sylvania, the suburb in which she lived and started her restaurant. In the endeavor’s early years, she faced a similar struggle to her cooking experience as a young refugee in Erie.
“If I don’t have an ingredient, I will not cook and I will not make it,” Xiong said. “If we don’t have it, I’ve got to drive all the way to Detroit to go and get it. Until I gather all of those, then I will cook it.”
Xiong also faced the challenge of addressing certain customers’ misunderstanding on what authentic food truly was.
“Because they’re eating so much Americanized stuff, when they come to eat something that’s truly authentic, is home cooked, [they say] ‘Oh, it doesn’t taste like that.’ Yes, of course — because that’s not what I wanted to do,” Xiong said. “I want to make it the way I make it at home. I called it Kay’s Table. This is my table. This is what I’m making for you.”
For Xiong, understanding food this way is a continuous learning process.
“It’s not by telling them, but by them seeing the examples. I hope that with me, with social media — and I’m sharing with my community and my customers — that they will finally realize that ‘Oh, wow, the Asian culture, the Asian community is so rich.’”
To this day, Xiong continues to build bridges between communities through diverse, authentic Asian recipes. In crafting Kay’s Table, Xiong has created a home of abundant kitchens, changing perceptions of being Asian in America while giving a taste of authentic culture.
“I do this because I love what I do. And I want the community to know that we’re Asians, but we’re accepting and we want to educate you to know that,” Xiong said. “And that’s what I did by bringing this restaurant here. That’s my goal, my mission here with the restaurant: I could bridge that gap through food.”
You can read a selected transcript from Kay Xiong’s interview here and explore other stories from this series here. “Asian in Ohio” is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Equity & Access Initiative Fund of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation.