Small restaurants win big with returned missionaries

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Much of the authenticity that people experience is due to the employees, such as these at Brassas Mexican Grill, who are from Mexico. (Jeffrey Allen)
Much of the authenticity that people experience is due to the employees, such as these at Brassas Mexican Grill, who are from Mexico. (Jeffrey Allen)

Returned missionaries don’t have to go far to get authentic flavors they experienced on their missions. Provo has international restaurants to satisfy their cravings.

Brassas Mexican Grill and Green Panda are a few of the authentic, family-owned restaurants in Provo. These small restaurants may have had problems in other areas, but their success in Provo relies heavily on the number of returned missionaries in the area.

Eliezer Coca, Brassas Mexican Grill owner, from Mexico City, said (through a translator) he’d never considered starting up a restaurant before he moved to Provo two years ago.

“Now I get more than a hundred people a day,” Coca said. “A lot of those people are returned missionaries. They love the food because it’s real, and it reminds them of their missions.”

Jacob Brown, an engineering major from Cedar Hills, served a Spanish-speaking mission and developed a love for authentic Mexican food. Brassas Mexican Grill, which is owned and run exclusively by natives of Mexico, gives him just that.

“It’s probably the best place I’ve been,” Brown said. “Their food is exactly how I remember it from the mission, which is probably why I eat there all the time.”

Brown said he’s been to a lot of Mexican restaurants in Provo, but few offer the feeling of being back on the mission like Brassas does.

Provo has many restaurants like Brassas, and each attracts a loyal fan base of returned missionaries. These restaurants have a steady flow of customers contributing to their business.

It’s a unique partnership between restaurant and returned missionary, a relationship that people like Daniel Decker, a biology major from Anaheim, California, know well.

“I go to eat because the food reminds me of the meals I had with members,” Decker said. “It’s probably why a lot of returned missionaries go.”

Mexican food isn’t the only authentic cuisine Provo offers. Returned missionaries seeking more Oriental flavors to their dishes can find all they need at restaurants like Green Panda.

Anyone visiting the restaurant can see by Green Panda’s missionary wall — a wall covered in maps of the world that returned missionary customers are encouraged to mark their missions on — that a lot of their business comes from returned missionaries.

It’s little wonder that returned missionaries enjoy the food here, as the owner, Cami Hagedorn, is a Taiwan native. She and her husband, Bob Hagedorn, run the business, and both agree that many of their customers are returned missionaries.

“We get a ton of returned missionaries,” Bob Hagedorn said, “especially during holidays like Chinese New Year.”

Recent graduate Joseph Thorin served his mission in Taiwan and said he hasn’t found a place that can top the food and feel of Green Panda.

“Green Panda is the only place I’ve found that has really authentic food,” Thorin said. “If someone were to ask me where to find real Asian food, I’d say Green Panda hands down.”

Green Panda offers food and drink such as miso soup, jumbo chicken fried rice and a beverage called Winter Melon Drink. Thorin said these are a good measure of the restaurant’s authenticity because they are exactly like the food he had in Taiwan.

Provo offers more foreign dining experiences outside authentic Mexican and Asian cuisine. The Banana Leaf (Singapore) and La Dolce Vita Ristorante Italiano (Italian) are other family-owned restaurants here in Provo that offer authentic and cultural food.

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