Aaron Cheng, at just 29, has an entire portfolio of restaurants to his name.
In Asheville, where he’s now a full-time resident, he’s opened two locations of Yum Sushi Burrito and Poke. He’s since opened another in Johnson City, Tennessee, and has plans for more.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he also launched a whole new concept: The Madness Sushi, Burger and Bar, at 275 Smokey Park Highway.
It’s been so popular that Cheng will add a new location in late summer at 1020 Merrimon Ave., the former site of Early Girl North and, before that, Ambrozia.
The Hong Kong-born Cheng, who moved stateside at 8 years old, was raised in a family where the food business was central.
After launching a few Chinese buffets and takeout restaurants, his parents and extended family found success with the Cajun seafood restaurant Surfing Crab, which has multiple locations in Texas and continues to grow.
But Cheng, who has worked in kitchens in sushi restaurants and American grills to add more to his culinary tool box, is driven to create more modern concepts, he said.
Besides, he added, there aren’t many combo sushi and burger bars in Asheville. “There’s not a lot of competition out there,” he said.
To be sure, there aren’t many places where you may have a spicy crab-topped burger crowned with a piece of sushi. “You see a lot of Chinese food with sushi or Thai-sushi fusion, but not a lot of Asian-American sushi restaurants,” said Cheng. “I just wanted to make something different and see if it works, and it seems like people enjoy it and love it.”
Particularly popular is the Madness Burger, an unlikely combo of Angus beef, crab salad, cream cheese, crispy onions and eel sauce.
Even more unlikely is the fact that a restaurant opened in winter in the middle of a pandemic could see enough early success to expand within a year.
Cheng, who began working in the restaurant business at the age of 15, said Asheville has been particularly supportive, although he admits those first few weeks were shaky.
But he also credits his crew with helping him over that initial hump. Though he said some in his extended family have a combative boss-worker dynamic in their own restaurants, Cheng wants to change that outmoded model with a more familial vibe.
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He also wants to provide the same growth opportunities he enjoyed in his restaurant-owning family to his young staff, who might not otherwise have easy pathways to success, he said.
Promoting servers or line cooks to management positions not only helps them advance, he said, it enables his business to grow with a solid foundation.
“The only reason I’ve had the opportunity to grow is my family,” he said. “Otherwise it’s hard for people to grow at a young age.”
Ask Cheng if he sees himself as a mentor, and he laughs nervously.
“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “But you need a strong team to have success and, if I didn’t have a strong team right now, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
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The Madness is now primed for expansion, with plans to take over three units in the shopping center next to the North Asheville library.
At 3,600 square feet, the restaurant will be nearly double the size of the flagship West Asheville location, and it will afford enough space for a large kitchen, casual dining room and sushi bar on the right and separate lounge area on the far left.
The menu will be the same, with appetizers like fried sushi rice squares topped with spicy tuna and Madness fries with crab salad and Sriracha aioli.
There are bento boxes where you can eat sliders with sushi. Entrees include a gochujang fried chicken sandwich and piled high burgers. There are specialty rolls and sake to sip with them.
The bar serves sake cocktails and the real thing, including Suntory whiskey gingers. A seasonal Japanese Roku gin and tonic now comes with fresh herbs and Creme de Violette. The cocktail menu changes seasonally.
Though the cocktails are refined, part of the point of the food is that it’s over the top, Cheng said. “The name ‘Madness’ is because I wanted to bring something crazy into Asheville.”
If all goes well, Cheng could bring The Madness to other cities.
But Asheville is and will remain home, he added. It’s beautiful, welcoming and affords plenty of outdoor experiences — even if it’s outrageously expensive.
“Even during COVID, lots of locals supported us,” Cheng said. “They wanted us to stay in business and, without the people here supporting local business, we could not be where we are now.”
Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.
Reach me: [email protected].