Slicing up sushi
Sushi chef and owner of J Sushi in Denton, Sam Jung ('11) has big dreams and a drive to make them a reality. Jung started his restaurant career at the age of 17, working his way from a dishwasher to kitchen staff to attaining his dream of being a sushi chef.
Jung's parents owned a restaurant in South Korea and he grew up working with traditional South Korean food. He came to the U.S. in 2000 and lived and worked in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and San Francisco, California, where he learned how to run a restaurant and make sushi. He gravitated toward the restaurant business in college, earning a bachelor's degree in hospitality management.
"Dr. Kim was a mentor to me," Jung says. "He always helped me and gave me advice on owning my own restaurant."
Several months before his graduation, Jung spotted an opportunity for a sushi restaurant on Loop 288 in Denton.
Read a feature story about how UNT's alumni use their UNT education and personal life experiences to create some of Texas' most distinctive and acclaimed restaurants.
"I was looking around and this spot was open," he says. "It was a good location so I took it."
When he isn't behind the counter combining rice, fish, shrimp, vegetables, sauces and spices into delicious sushi creations, he's donating his time and talent to various high school bands and sports teams. He also enjoys contributing to Denton Korean Baptist and Risen Baptist Church and is providing meals for summer schools there.
At J Sushi, Jung offers sashimi, bento boxes, hibachi grill items, specialty drinks and more in addition to sushi, all in a family-friendly atmosphere.
"I always wanted to be a sushi chef," he says. "It's nice to talk to people at the sushi bar, find out what they like and make food for them."
He also would like to open more sushi and hibachi restaurants within the next few years in Denton.
"I love this town," he says. "It feels like home to me."
Mouthwatering Mexican fare
Matt Kohandani ('84), owner of Mi Casita, ended up in Denton a little by accident. He came here 40 years ago because UNT was the closest college to him, but he says it ended up being one of the best decisions of his life.
"Denton is home to me," Kohandani says. "It's where I became smart, where I became a man, a father, a grandfather and someday -- hopefully 100 years from now -- I'll die here."
Kohandani graduated with a degree in industrial technology, now known as engineering technology. By the time he'd graduated, he and his wife knew they wanted to stay in Denton with their children. His wife was a wonderful cook and he wanted to work in a job where he could be around people, so they opened Mi Casita.
Since then their family has grown and become a proud UNT family. Alumni include wife Lilly; children Monica Kohandani Torres ('04), Armand Kohandani ('10) and Erica Kohandani ('15); son-in-law Pedro Torres ('02); and daughter-in-law Ellen Loftice Kohandani ('08). Daughter Bianca is currently attending UNT.
Kohandani still has many connections to the university. He says retired associate professor of engineering technology Phillip Foster was his toughest professor but "turned out to be one of the best," and he still sees him on a regular basis. And President Neal Smatresk visits Mi Casita often, at least once a week, usually to order the carne guisada with very spicy salsa.
Mi Casita has two locations in Denton, serving mouthwatering Mexican fare, including vegetarian beans and rice, as well as other options. Kohandani is dedicated to Denton and does what he can to give back to the community.
"We have a little box here where we get people to contribute whatever they can, and then I use it to give away free food to the needy," says Kohandani, who also has been known to cater a wedding for a couple who couldn't afford it and helps out others especially around Christmastime and Thanksgiving. "The business has been very successful for 21 years."
Vietnamese cuisine ambassador
Mai started early with a strong education in Vietnamese cuisine by helping his father cook in the kitchen and continued that tradition throughout his life.
"As I gained more experience over time, I started using what I learned and putting my own flair to it," he says. "Since it's not as mainstream as other Asian cuisines, I wanted to share these wonderful dishes that are so unique and that can't be found anywhere else in the area."
The most popular item is the Banh mi, a street style sandwich that starts with a toasted Vietnamese baguette (sourced at a local bakery) dressed with roasted garlic mayo and sriracha. Mai then adds fresh jalapeños, cilantro, cucumbers and fills it with a fresh off the grill protein (pork, chicken, tofu or mushrooms) of the customer's choice. Mai tops off the sandwich with the truck-made pickled carrots and daikon and finishes it off with his special seasoning sauce.
Mai had worked for corporate America but decided to save his money so he could be his own boss. At UNT, he chose to pursue his passion with a bachelor's degree in hospitality management and found a professor who encouraged him to follow his dreams of spreading his love for Vietnamese food.
"Dr. Richard Tas was by far my favorite professor," says Mai. "He was very engaging and had such a unique personality that you couldn't help but pay attention."
Originally from Dallas, Mai tried returning there for work but found the city lifestyle wasn't agreeing with him anymore. In 2012, he chose to come back to Denton and start The Pickled Carrot, his Vietnamese-style food truck.
"I love the small-town feel," Mai says. "You can't go anywhere without running into someone you know!"
In that spirit, Mai spends time giving back to Denton with community-oriented fundraisers, sometimes giving as much as 15 percent of sales to help such causes as Denton Freedom House and the Denton MHMR. He loves Denton and the people in it.
Mai says he had one major reason for purchasing a food truck rather than a traditional restaurant.
"I went the mobile route because I didn't want to feel fixed in one location," he says. "I wanted to be able to move around and be sort of like an ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine."
Roy Metzler ('84) understands the importance of hard work, family, community -- and great barbecue. As the owner of Metzler's Food and Beverage, a popular barbecue eatery with two locations in Denton, he spends most of his day making orders, planning menus and generally ensuring the business runs smoothly.
Metzler worked in the food industry from a young age -- first at his family's Gainesville restaurant, which was also called Metzler's and is now Dieter Brothers, and later at the Denton Metzler's. He majored in marketing with a minor in real estate at UNT and was involved on campus, especially with the Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity and intramural sports. With his parents living just outside of Gainesville, Metzler helped out at his family's restaurant on the weekends.
"After I graduated I was selling real estate, and my brother bought a restaurant here in Denton and asked me to run it for him with a chance to buy in ownership," Metzler says. "A lot of my friends were living here, and I could drive back to Gainesville when needed. So I started managing my first business, the first Metzler's here."
Now he owns and manages Denton's two Metzler's Food and Beverage restaurants, known for barbecue, a large beer and wine selection, and a family atmosphere. They also serve other foods such as hamburgers, fried favorites and German food. Metzler has been in Denton since 1980 and with Metzler's since 1986.
"It was a business I knew, and my father encouraged me to stay in the industry, partner with him and stay in the family tradition," Metzler says. "Denton is my home. It's where I've raised my four children and been very involved in churches and charities."
He spends a lot of his time and energy giving back to the Denton community through various organizations, especially the homeless shelter, the Monsignor King Outreach Center, where he serves as president. Metzler also spends his time giving back to the UNT community.
"I have employed many UNT students throughout the years and I take great pride when they work for me until they graduate," he says. "It means a lot to me to see them succeed. I like it when they come back to visit me to say hello."