An Asian restaurant that has been a fixture on Middle Tennessee State University’s border for decades is returning to its roots with a previous owner taking charge and its founder ensuring his original menu is served.
Far East at 1529 E. Main St. has been a staple for MTSU workers and students since sometime in the 1970s, said lifelong customer Joanna Medlen. In fact, her mother, Almyra Medlen, who worked years ago at the university library, frequently ate at Far East and brought home ample leftovers, she said.
Dr. Xai Saenphansiri and his wife, Panola, first bought the restaurant in March 2018 from longtime owner and founder Chan Plaengnam. The couple sold the operations in July 2019 but retained ownership of the building, the doctor said.
Those operators did not work out, Xai said, and he received call after call from customers who were unhappy the restaurant’s name and menu were changed. So, he and his wife bought back the restaurant in May – during the coronavirus lockdown.
Now that life is returning somewhat to normal, Xai said, Far East will hold a ribbon cutting and grand reopening Oct. 17 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Xai is not the only familiar face for Far East’s loyal customers. Chan will help out on a part-time basis to ensure the menu is the way people remember it, Xai said. There may be new items like bubble tea, as well.
Xai said Chan sold him the business because he is a medical patient, and he trusts him.
“He loves his customers, and they love him, too,” Xai said.
Chan said he agreed. He said he started the restaurant about 40 years ago with no money, but it grew in time because he always supported the community, including MTSU and local schools. He said he decided to sell it a couple years ago because he was getting older and had health issues.
As Chan spoke about the history of the restaurant, he stopped for a few minutes to speak to lifelong customer Dennis Raffield, who expressed surprise and joy to see him. When asked to name his favorite dish, Raffield listed several, including pepper steak and cashew chicken.
Resuming his reminiscence on Far East’s history, Chan said when he bought the building, the structure also included a bicycle shop and beauty salon. He briefly opened an Asian grocery store.
Returning to the original menu is what will draw the customers back, Chan said. That is in addition to the hard work put in by the new owners – he asked how often do you see a doctor and his wife mopping a restaurant’s floors and cleaning the dishes?
Restaurant work is a relatively new facet for Xai, who practices at Xai Family Medical Clinic and has privileges at Ascend Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital. He said before settling in Murfreesboro about a decade ago, he served in the U.S. Navy, practicing medicine and traveled to locales that included Oakland, California and Ada, Alaska. His final post was in the Memphis area, which was around the time he got married – thus, he settled down in Tennessee.
Xai is an active member of the Wat Lao Buddharam temple on Old Nashville Highway. He is Laotian, and his wife is Thai. The couple has a son who attends MTSU and a daughter who attends Blackman High School.
Xai said his favorite dishes are General Tso’s chicken, Thai rice and pho, just the way the customers remember the dishes. He said he had another message for his customers.
“We are here to stay,” Xai said.