Growing Asian District in Mesa budding with enthusiasm for restaurants, shops, diversity
PHOENIX — Near Dobson Road and Main Street in Mesa is one of the Valley’s hidden gems: the Asian District.
It’s a concentration of businesses big and small that line the streets and fill up strip malls. They sell food and products from different countries and cultures.
Mesa has made efforts to brand the district so that it isn’t so hidden anymore. It’s larger now than it’s ever been.
“We have more than 70 Asian-themed businesses … restaurants, retailers, boutiques, shops and grocery stores,” said Jaye O’Donnell, assistant director for the Mesa Office of Economic Development.
“I think it’s a really positive place, and [Mesa] recognizes it as one of our points of pride.”
The Asian District has a logo that’s seen on street signs and promotional materials. It’s called a Tangram: a colorful square made up of several smaller shapes that all fit together.
“The Tangram is a 2,000-year-old Chinese game,” O’Donnell explained. “Each symbol and color really showcases how different everyone is in this District, and yet it’s unified.”
An important part of the district’s makeup is Mekong Plaza, which has been around for over a decade.
Mekong Plaza is a bustling indoor mall made up of a wide range of Asian restaurants, a large supermarket selling specialized ingredients and retail stores.
It’s also a good example of the unique experience offered to visitors of the Asian District.
“Most of the products sold in these restaurants are authentic from the business owner’s hometown and their family recipes,” Steven Diep, Mekong Plaza’s property manager, said.
“A lot of the other businesses in the Asian District are mom-and-pops as well.”
One example is Happy Bao’s, a restaurant inside Mekong Plaza that sells stuffed buns and other Chinese specialties. The food has a special meaning for owner Matthew Ma.
“It’s in our culture… for every special event we get together as a family, we cook meals, we wrap dumplings, it’s a big thing,” he said.
Since his family has been in the restaurant business for the past 20 years, bringing their recipes to a wider audience was a no-brainer when Ma opened Happy Bao’s in 2019.
“We saw how Mekong Plaza was developing, and how it was the first Asian shopping center in this area,” he recounted. “We saw a good opportunity… and it’s been good ever since.”
However, Diep says things at the plaza haven’t always been so lively.
“When I first got here [in 2011], half the center was occupied, and the other half was vacant,” he says. “It took about three years for the center to be fully occupied, but it hasn’t been vacant ever since. When one tenant moves out, another moves in.”
Diep credits the city’s support of the Asian District as an important reason why things have changed, and the city’s role in the District has become even more pronounced in recent years.
Although some of the businesses, and the customers, have been there for over a decade, it wasn’t officially recognized and branded until 2020.
“It was well known for the Asian community, so we had a lot to build on,” O’Donnell said of their efforts. “I think after the brand was created, we were able to share it in a much more significant way with the broader community.”
The Asian District’s unified brand was formed with input from businesses and stakeholders already in the area. Now, it hosts events for Asian holidays, and themed street signs alert drivers to the unique businesses in the area.
Since then, the Asian District has seen major success. O’Donnell said in the past three years, sales tax revenues from the District have a seen a 10% increase year-over-year, despite the COVID pandemic.
This year, Mekong Plaza got a bit of a facelift too via a series of murals. Local freelance artist Khadima Tung was commissioned to do the work.
“It’s the full twelve zodiac signs,” Tung said. “There are 13 pillars, so at the end we added a mural of the Mekong Plaza itself.”
Mekong Plaza isn’t just a canvas for Tung, it’s also somewhere important to her and her family.
“I have a lot of history with what is now the Asian District,” she said. “I was like, ‘I feel like I’m really attached to this, and I would really like to be a part of it.’”
She also remembers how the area looked when she first started visiting and how the District has changed.
“It kind of just started out as a supermarket,” Tung said. “But to see these bakeries and restaurants slowly open up… food is my entire family’s thing, so having a lot more authentic stuff pop up was definitely a super cool experience.”
Ma, taking a break from cooking his family’s recipes in Happy Bao’s kitchen, also feels the Asian District has personal significance.
“It means a lot. I love seeing a lot of different types of Asian businesses coming in,” he said. “Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Pilipino… it’s a good diversity, and it attracts a lot of people to see all of our Asian cultures.”