Lifelong friends and restaurateurs Kenny Poon and David Taing travel extensively, and when they find an idea they like, they try to bring it home to Philadelphia.
Poon, 38, seized the bubble-tea craze at its local outset in 2012 and opened Tea Do, on 10th Street in Chinatown. More recently, he fell hard for Bonchon, the Korean-style fried-chicken chain, and, with Taing and other partners, opened one on Cherry Street in early 2015.
Asian food halls have become a thing. They're inside H Mart, the Korean supermarkets. Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, N.J., has all sorts of Japanese foods. Chinese vendors are set up in New York Food Court and New World Mall, in Flushing, Queens.
"We need this here," Taing, 36, said to Poon after one excursion to Flushing.
The men, backed by partners, struck a deal for the double-wide Chinatown storefront at 1016-18 Race St. that housed the gift emporium Shanghai Bazaar, and set about building one, called Chinatown Square.
By March 3, Chinatown Square is expected to be fully operational, with 10 food and drink operations, embracing a variety of cuisines, on the first floor, which ends in a communal seating area and a bar. Taing and Poon said they envisioned the bright look and feel as a gathering of food trucks under one roof.
Upstairs will be a full-service Korean restaurant called Dae Bak (as in "awesome"), a wine shop called Cork & Bottle, lounges sponsored by liquor companies such as Ketel One and Ciroq, and Access Karaoke.
At least one stand on the first floor may be open 24 hours -- if not, at least until the wee small hours, Poon and Taing said.
Prices are reasonable. Most dishes are $10 and under.
First to open was the Halal Guys, which sells Middle Eastern sandwiches and platters and is the hall's only concept not indigenous to East or Southeast Asia. It opened in the front window just before Christmas.
A branch of I CE NY, said to be the first Thai rolled ice cream shop in New York and operated by Taing's sister Lisa and a partner, Jimmy Huynh, joined Halal Guys shortly thereafter in the window. A third business, which Poon and Taing declined to identify, will open soon next to Halal Guys.
Running between Halal Guys and I CE NY, past a few tables, is a polished-concrete hallway and a riot of sights and aromas.
Zigzag along the aisle:
On the left, past what will be a bottle-tea shop called Tea Us, is Philly Poke, a stand specializing in customizable Hawaiian raw-fish bowls, poke-ritos, sushi to go, musubi, and rice bowls. Owner Andrew Hu's family owned Blue Pacific in King of Prussia Mall for years.
To the right is Khmer Grill, selling home-style Cambodian barbecue and run by Ansopanha "Janice" Sok and Chun Ho, who previously set up among other vendors in FDR Park in South Philadelphia. Menu includes grilled chicken wings, beef sticks, homemade sausage, sticky rice, and Khmer papaya salad.
Back across to the left is the Bao Bar, serving pillowy, warm Chinese steam buns, onigiri, banh mi, and rice bowls; its full bar, due to open soon, will serve 20 craft beers. Taing and Poon, who own this one, also intend to add congee and spam to a planned late-night menu for a Hawaiian breakfast.
Across to the right is Kurry Korner, where Si Chen, a Drexel MBA, and her husband, Fai Lam, a former sushi chef, serve her aunt's two recipes for curry -- one Thai and the other Japanese -- as well as currywurst, pork cutlet, and snacks.
Back to the left is Hi-Kori, a Japanese whiskey and sake bar with tea-infused cocktails. The Japanese street-food menu includes kushiyaki (skewers), pork belly mini boxes, and yakisoba noodles. Hi-Kori's bar also provides seating.
To the right is Coreanos, a fusion of Mexican and Korean cooking from chef Hee "Chino" Chang (Bop and Monarch) and Tim Lu (Crabby Cafe), with an assist from David Song of Bop. Proteins on the menu are all over the map -- bulgogi, al pastor, double-fried chicken, rotisserie chicken -- and can be added to tacos, carnitas, and rice bowls. It's one of the few eateries where Spanish rice, red chili salsa, and kimchi can accompany a meal.
Hours for now are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, but will run later once the upstairs is operating.
(Updated to reflect that Halal Guys is the only concept not reflecting an East or Southeast Asian cuisine.)