August 12, 2022

Japanese restaurant Don Express opens in Knollwood | To eat

A popular Japanese food truck now has a permanent home. On May 27, Don Express opened its brick-and-mortar restaurant at 472 Knollwood St., in a former subway location just off Stratford Road, behind Arby’s.

Japan-born Mari Phillips and her husband, James Phillips, started Don Express in October 2019 as a food truck to share some of her favorite types of Japanese street food. Don Express sells items such as ramen, yakisoba (stir-fried buckwheat and noodles), gyoza stickers, and chicken katsu (breaded and fried chicken).

Kai Phillips prepares yakisoba at the Don Express restaurant. The restaurant serves Japanese street food and is an extension of the Don Express food truck.

Abigail Pittman, Diary

James Phillips, who grew up here, met Mari while stationed in Japan with the US Navy.

James Phillips, an electrician, has spent the past few months renovating the Knollwood space. “My husband did it all,” Mari Phillips said.

Much of the renovation involved building the cooking area in the middle of the building. Protected by glass windows on both sides, customers can easily see their food being prepared.

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Dishes available at Don Express include (pictured, left to right) okonomiyaki, pork yakisoba and gyoza.

Abigail Pittman. Log

The casual, quick-service restaurant is small, with a few seats at the custom wood counter, plus a table for 12 inside and about 16 outside.

It offers counter service and all food is served in take-out containers.

Mari Phillips said the truck would be sidelined at least for a while while Don Express focused on keeping the restaurant running smoothly. Later, it will likely be returned to limited use, for catering and special events.


James (left to right), Kai and Mari Phillips pose for a portrait inside the Don Express restaurant in Winston-Salem. James and Mari are co-owners of the new restaurant.

Abigail Pittman, Diary

“Quality is my #1 priority: quality, customer service and consistency. Right now it’s either the store or the truck,” she said, adding that she has limited staff at the moment.

She taught her 20-year-old son Kai to do a lot of the short-lived cooking. “He started on the truck with me when he was 17, and he’s going to go to Johnson & Wales,” she said.


Don Express Restaurant

Abigail Pittman, Diary

She also has help from friends Daisy Martell Salinas and Sasha Suzuki, as well as her husband.

Mari Phillips is on a mission to share her love of authentic Japanese cuisine. “Most restaurants offer Americanized Japanese cuisine. I’ve been waiting for North Carolina to be ready for authentic Japanese food,” she said in 2020 shortly after launching her food truck.


Kai Phillips prepares yakisoba at the Don Express restaurant.

Abigail Pittman, Diary

Don Express on Knollwood will offer a fairly extensive menu, given the small kitchen – a challenge that Mari Phillips was able to overcome on the truck. In fact, the new restaurant will offer much the same menu as the truck. The only difference will be that a few occasional items will now be available all the time.

Don Express offers appetizers such as gyoza ($7) and seaweed salad ($6). Tonkotsu ramen is a chicken and pork broth with a marinated hard-boiled egg, green onions and bamboo shoots. It is available with chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu ($16 to $19).


Kai Phillips prepares yakisoba at the Don Express restaurant.

Abigail Pittman, Diary

Street food specialties include yakisoba (stir-fried noodles with vegetables and choice of protein, $15-$18), takoyaki (octopus in a crispy ball of dough, $8) and okonomiyaki (savory pancake with pork and vegetables, $17).

Rice bowls ($16) are available with either plain or curried chicken katsu and chashu (pork belly).


Gyozas, which are pan-fried stickers, are one of the dishes available at the Don Express restaurant.

Abigail Pittman, Diary

Don Express also offers bento boxes containing mixed greens, seaweed salad, Japanese potato salad, steamed rice and more. Boxes are available with karaage (Japanese fried chicken), chicken katsu and grilled tofu ($17-$19). A deluxe bento box ($27) comes with short ribs, calamari salad and spring roll.

Mari Phillips said she might add items like Japanese rice balls and homemade miso soup later. She also said she hopes to eventually offer a few items already prepared and packaged in a refrigerated display case for take-out meals.

Don Express will have green tea and other beverages. It doesn’t have an ABC license yet, but plans to have Japanese and local beer, as well as sake.


Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake dish available at Don Express Restaurant.

Abigail Pittman, Diary

Mari Phillips said she was excited to switch from the truck to the restaurant for several reasons. One of them is that it will be able to serve more people.

“It turns out that a lot of people really like Japanese street food,” she said.


Yakisoba, or stir-fried noodles and vegetables, is a dish available at the Don Express restaurant.

Abigail Pittman, Diary

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