PORT JERVIS – Three Indonesian friends will soon be cooking up their American dream in Port Jervis after a successful launch of their culinary venture in Middletown.
The Three Ninjas Hibachi and Sushi Express will open this month where Homer’s and then Roy’s Diner once were, at Pike and East Main Street, says Steven Alexander, 28, one of the trio.
He and his two best friends went to high school together in Jakarta. They opened their Middletown restaurant in July 2019 and found their business doubling as the pandemic surged in April 2020, Alexander said. People were attracted to food made on the hibachi grill for takeout.
“Hibachi chicken is the most popular. We give a generous portion grilled with seasoning and homemade teriyaki sauce,” he said. “People love the yum yum sauce that comes with all the entrees. It’s a homemade secret sauce, sweet and creamy.”
He looked at many recipes and blended what was appealing in them, he said. They also offer sushi and grilled vegetables – zucchini, carrots, broccoli and onions – plus Japanese marble soda.
“It’s Japanese sparkling water with fruit flavors,” he said.
Asked how they landed in Middletown, he explained the route that took him from Indonesia through Los Angeles, Arkansas and New Jersey, lured by the American dream of upward mobility.
“If you have a dream here, you can work for it,” he said. “If you’re not born rich in Indonesia, you can’t do it. It requires a good education, and that’s not cheap.”
Consequently, his parents, who had a bakery in Jakarta, moved the family to the U.S. after Steven finished high school 10 years ago.
His first reaction upon landing in Los Angeles was, “Wow! I loved it. It was totally different from Indonesia, the language, the culture, everything.” he recalled. “We saw nice cars and nice houses. It motivated us to work hard.”
The luxurious houses and cars of Beverly Hills dazzled him, but upon arrival Alexander had no income nor car in a car-dominated city. Nor did he speak much English. He had learned some English in Indonesia but never had to use it.
“It took time to learn,” he said
He took a job at a framing shop in downtown L.A., where he was trained to do the work and took a bus there daily.
“If I missed the bus, I had to wait half an hour for the next one,” he said. “But in Indonesia, saving for a car would have taken two years. Low-level workers don’t make much. In L.A. I had a car in four months.”
He bought a 2002 Toyota Celica. Meanwhile, his coworkers and customers helped him with his English.
When he tired of the framing shop work after a year, his Indonesian pal Anton Lou, in New York, invited him to train to be a chef at a Japanese restaurant in Westchester County, where Lou was working. Alexander did the training, which led to a job in Jersey City as a hibachi chef and to a vision of starting a restaurant with his friends.
He left his job as a chef after five years to set up a new business.
“I spent three months figuring out how,” he said. “I had no idea.”
His other Indonesian friend, Rudy Bong, had started a restaurant in Arkansas, and Alexander visited to see how it worked. Then he looked for commercial properties on Craigslist, aiming for a place about 90 minutes from Manhattan. That was how he chose Middletown.
“It’s a big city with all classes of people, and there were Asian restaurants, but I felt we could offer something better for less money,” he said.
Bong decided to join Alexander and Lou in the venture. Less than a year after their opening, they found that what they offered suited a troubled time. And not only did they have an increase in business once the pandemic began, they also noticed that many customers came from Port Jervis.
“There’s no Japanese food in Port Jervis. People were coming to Middletown for it,” Alexander said. “We saw an opportunity.”