Another summer draws to a close for pan-Asian restaurant East of Suez, which has welcomed generations of diners in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire
The sidewalks of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, are coated in a patinaed collage of melted ice cream. The shores of its glistening lakes, once the sites of large hotels, motels, and cottages, are lined with large vacation homes. These are the trappings of the “oldest summer resort in America,” a title Wolfeboro bases on Governor John Wentworth, who built his lakeside summer estate there in 1768 before he was kicked out by “rambunctious patriots” six years later. It’s a tidy story that continues to draw visitors — with little mention in official lore about the Indigenous Abenaki population who inhabited the land year-round before they were decimated by the violence and diseases associated with colonial expansion. Today, the population of Wolfeboro swells every summer with tourists and celebrities like Mitt Romney, Jimmy Fallon, and Drew Barrymore.
Other than a few standouts, the food is standard American fare. But three and a half miles out of town, right by where the speed limit picks up and the forested hills begin, there’s a lesser-known historical site. One of the oldest pan-Asian restaurants in America, East of Suez, sits in an unassuming century-old building that was once the dining hall of Camp Wunnishaunta — an informal Jewish day camp for adults — and then a pizza joint.
In 1967, New York City residents Charlie and Norma Powell purchased the building on a whim. Norma had recently immigrated from the Philippines to work at the Philippine Consulate, and her friend, Tarcela Cabunilas (Mama Tars), had come to the U.S. to help take care of the Powells’ house and daughters. Charlie, a white Manhattanite advertising executive, had traveled extensively across Asia with his father, a naval officer and photojournalist/cinematographer.
The three of them frequently summered in a nearby cottage that had been in Charlie’s family since the late 1800s, but they lamented the lack of Asian food in the Lakes Region. So they decided to open a restaurant of their own.
That first summer, East of Suez was only open for one weekend. The following summer, a week. Then, weekends only. Eventually, they were open every July and August. Over the years, the rustic restaurant became a hit, serving Korean bulgogi, Philippine adobo, pad thai, and Japanese tempura for up to 40 people a night. Every week, the Powells would pack a turquoise VW Beetle with rice, oyster sauce, gallons of soy sauce and sesame oil, fresh noodles, daikon root, napa cabbage, bean sprouts, snow peas, and shiitake mushrooms purchased in New York’s Chinatown before trucking the 300 miles north to Wolfeboro. Now in its 55th season, East of Suez is open roughly from Memorial Day through Labor Day. When they raise their sign at the beginning of a season, locals see it as a sign of summer’s arrival.
Perched outside the tourist-packed downtown, East of Suez serves a small, in-the-know fraction of the 6,547 people who live in Wolfeboro all year, and it provides a taste of home to Asian American and Pacific Islanders from around New England. Over the past five decades, many diners have held milestone events at the restaurant: reunions, fundraising events for local charities, bridal showers, weddings, memorials. The Powells’ daughters, Elizabeth (Liz) Powell Gorai and Charlene Powell, grew up at the restaurant, occupying two beach chairs by a small black and white television in a corner of the kitchen. Charlie used to say Liz was peeling garlic by the time she was five.
Liz has primarily run the restaurant for the past few decades. Norma died in 1978 in a devastating car accident, followed by Charlie in 2001 after a brief and sudden illness, and then Mama Tars in 2021. Each passing has come as a small crisis for East of Suez, but every time the family and the community rallied to keep the restaurant open, recognizing that there was something special worth preserving. The staff today are a mix of locals, the Powells’ blood relatives, and loosely defined family from across the Philippine diaspora (including some who fly in every summer just to work at the restaurant). “The parking lot might be small-town New Hampshire,” one former staff member says, “but once you walk inside, you’re transported to another land.”
I was 15 when Charlie hired me in 1997, freshly home from boarding school. Though my family is white, like 95 percent of Wolfeboro’s population, culturally I never felt that I belonged there. My father was a merchant mariner and my mother is from London, and they’d moved to Wolfeboro somewhat randomly. I retained my English accent until second grade, when I learned that if I changed how I said “vitamin” I wouldn’t get made fun of. But the expectation that I would assimilate into Wolfeboro’s seemingly homogenous preppy culture didn’t suit me either. I’d left Wolfeboro as early as I could for school and returned only during the summers, effectively joining the migratory tourist crowds. I had little familiarity with the food East of Suez served and no experience waiting tables, but for the first time in Wolfeboro, I felt like I was part of a community that was based on something I could get behind: mutual respect.
Dining at East of Suez has never been brisk, but always exceedingly kind. One customer reports that after asking for tofu during a meal in the early ’90s, Charlie sent someone to the store to buy some. He was a consummate host. He’d fry up a bunch of crispy shrimp tempura for guests waiting in line for tables, or emerge from the swinging kitchen doors at the end of service with a bottle of sake or plum wine in hand to share with lingering customers. Some nights he’d end up at the piano with guests singing along. There was a list of rules on the fridge that read: “No. 1: The customer is always right. No. 2: If the customer is wrong, see rule No. 1” — though if a guest was particularly rude, Charlie would come out of the kitchen to tell them, “Tonight, dinner is on me. But please don’t ever return.”
He showed the same kindness to his staff. Occasionally, I’d call Charlie at midday and ask if I could go to the movies with friends rather than come to work. “That’s fine,” he’d say, “We’ll just take fewer reservations.”
When her father passed, Liz, then 38, was living in Manhattan with her two small children and husband, Katsu, with whom she ran a karate school, and was tending to Katsu’s ailing father back in Japan. Her sister, Charlene, was living on the West Coast, and Mama Tars had moved to Texas in the ’70s. Though Liz was daunted by the challenge of running a restaurant, with encouragement from her tita (aunt) Alice and ate (big sister/respected older friend) Aida, she decided to give it a go.
Many family members returned to Wolfeboro to celebrate Charlie’s life, pitching in to help that first summer without him. Especially after Liz’s father-in-law passed away, and then September 11, the family focused on regrouping and returning to their roots. More cousins came back to visit and help. Mama Tars came back to work and take care of Liz’s children, and she became a de facto grandmother to all of us at the restaurant, gently chiding us if we took ourselves too seriously, and serving us leche flan or buttery rich sans rival after the customers had gone.
Everything about the restaurant feels like a well-loved patchwork. The jade green walls with varnished wood details are adorned with photographs, souvenirs, vintage movie posters dating from Charlie’s father’s time in Asia up through the family’s most recent travels, and assorted knicknacks gifted by guests. The dishes don’t match, but they do reflect the family’s love of yard sales. During my sejour under Charlie, there never seemed to be enough glasses — or ice, or corkscrews, or menus.
Some of the eclectic decorations — antique masks or other artifacts the Powells had collected, a doll a customer made in Charlie’s likeness — have gone missing. At the entrance sits a giant clam shell that Norma imported from the Philippines back in the 1960s. Some staff members say there used to be six of them; Liz thinks there were three. In either case, the lost shells were likely pilfered, since artifacts from the now-vulnerable species can fetch large sums. Last year, someone called up Liz saying they’d found a “missing” shell in the woods and demanded $200 for its return. She told the caller to leave it in the woods. While Liz is disheartened by people pocketing these things, she believes that “for everything that goes out the door, even more comes back.” East of Suez has close ties to Wolfeboro’s community of small business owners and friends, often bartering for services, receiving free repairs to Charlie’s Beetle or a new ice maker in return.
Under Liz’s management, the restaurant has grown, serving 125 people a night. She’s collaborated with Aida, Alice, and guest chefs to expand the menu too, with more vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options and more locally sourced ingredients. At the beginning of the pandemic when the usual core staff members couldn’t travel, Liz quickly trained her husband and kids to cook in order to keep the restaurant open at all. After George Floyd’s death, they put a Black Lives Matter sign in the window. They received some criticism on social media, but the sign stayed up. “People of all political spectrums dine here, [as long as] they’re fine communing with other people over great meals. I hope that the spirit that prevails in this place can carry outside to people’s homes,” Liz says. “Hospitality is not simply about serving people. It’s about how we treat each other.” In 2020, they changed the rules on the fridge to read: “No. 1: have fun, No. 2: smile, and No. 3: make it sarap” (delicious, in Tagalog).
The family has considered creating an offshoot of the restaurant in downtown Wolfeboro, cosmopolitan Portsmouth, Manhattan (where Liz operates pop-up pan-Asian cafeteria experiment, Mama T. NYC, a love letter to Mama Tars), or even the Philippines. But, as anachronistic as the setting may seem, the location in Wolfeboro has allowed East of Suez to thrive.
Ninety percent of independent restaurants close within their first year and those that don’t have an average five-year life span. Despite all of its idiosyncrasies, East of Suez has thrived for over half a century. Wolfeboro draws customers — including me. While my family no longer lives there, I’ve instituted the tradition of an annual meal at the restaurant with my own children, who have gotten to know Liz, Aida, and company. Wolfeboro has functioned as a place of summertime comfort for the Powells for over a century. At East of Suez, the family offers that to anyone who walks in the door too.
Michele Christle is a freelance writer who writes about culture, ecology, and place. Her work has been published in Down East, Maine Homes by Down East, and The Kenyon Review. She works in nonprofit communications and lives on unceded Wabanaki territory in midcoast Maine.