Asian, Mexican restaurant planned for vacant lot in downtown Johnson City

David Floyd • Sep 6, 2019 at 9:00 PM

A vacant lot in downtown Johnson City could soon have new life as a restaurant created by the business partners behind Southern Craft, Label and the Stir Fry Cafe.

Restaurateur Rafael Zabala anticipates Juan Siao, housed in a planned two-story building that will be constructed at 104 Tipton St., will open in spring 2020. He’s opening the restaurant with business partner Martin Bagwell.

“It’s kind of the cornerstone of downtown,” said Zabala, explaining why the location on Tipton Street was appealing. “When you pull into downtown, it’s right there. It’s a highly visible spot when you’re pulling into downtown off of State of Franklin.”

The restaurant will serve Asian and Mexican food, and Zabala said the core menu will be derived from items available at Stir Fry, including spicy noodles, drunken noodles and General Tso’s chicken.

“People have asked us about putting a Stir Fry back in Johnson City for years now, so we wanted to bring those core Stir Fry dishes back in to the Johnson City area,” he said.

The Mexican side of the menu is still in development, he said.

The second floor will have a bar and a covered patio, which Zabala said will offer a view of State of Franklin, and about half of the first floor will be taken up by an open kitchen. There will also be a garden-style seating area on the first floor.

The restaurant’s name, Juan Siao, is in part a recognition of Kenny Siao, a mentor and friend of Zabala’s who started Stir Fry Cafe about 26 years ago in Knoxville. Zibala worked for Siao in Knoxville while he was in college. Siao died about four months after he and Zabala opened a Stir Fry location in Johnson City in 2004.

Siao got Zabala, who always loved creating things, into the restaurant business.

“Kenny and I became friends, and I got an opportunity in the last couple of years when he was around to really learn a lot from him, and then it just expanded from there,” he said.

Zabala, Bagwell and partner Mark Rowan are all part of RMM Hospitality, which owns The Social in Kingsport, 620 State in Bristol and Southern Craft and Label in Johnson City. They currently have about 220 employees, Zabala said. The opening of Juan Siao plus another Southern Craft location in the Sessions Hotel in Bristol will put them close to 300 employees in the Tri-Cities area.

Zabala believes Tipton Street has become in some ways the core of downtown Johnson City.

“We built our first restaurant down here 10 years ago, so we’ve been in the space before a lot of other people were downtown,” he said, “so Tipton Street has really been a good catalyst for downtown to grow around.”

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