People & Places

Old Capitol mall becomes hub for Asian students

New restaurants, stores draw Asian customers, those looking to explore other cultures

A line extends around the corner of Seoul Grill at Old Capitol Town Center in Iowa City on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Sev
A line extends around the corner of Seoul Grill at Old Capitol Town Center in Iowa City on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Several of the businesses in the mall are owned by Asian-Americans, which has created a business microclimate unique in Iowa. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The day her new Asian specialty food store is scheduled to open in the Old Capitol Town Center, Hao Yang peers at food labels, agonizing over the proper English translations that may help American customers feel comfortable trying something new.

“Mostly in Asian stores, you can’t see many English terms — especially the correct terms,” said Yang, 20, who is opening Asia+ with two fellow University of Iowa students, Ningshuang Zhao, 23, and Mingyang Li, 20, all natives of China. “I don’t blame the other stores, but I expect us to try harder.”

Asia+, an airy store with colorful wares displayed on open shelves, is the newest of a host of businesses launched in the downtown Iowa City mall that cater to Asian students, faculty and community members. This business microclimate that includes Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants draws hundreds of Asian students over a weekday lunch hour.

“I feel a sense of home there,” said Jintao He, a University of Iowa junior from the Jiangsu province of China who is majoring in finance, mathematics and computer science.

International influx

International student enrollment at the UI more than doubled from 2,150 in 2007 to more than 4,500 in 2015. Three-quarters of the UI’s 4,300 international students this year are from east and Southeast Asia, with the largest numbers of that group from China (2,642), South Korea (336), Malaysia (78) and Taiwan (66).

Unlike past decades, when most international students were in graduate school, undergrads make up the bulk of the UI’s international enrollment. These undergraduates from places that include Beijing, Xingou, Hong Kong and Seoul flock to the Old Capitol Town Center for meals, socializing or study groups.

“The gathering space is popular for a lot of our international students, who more frequently live off campus,” said Doug Lee, an assistant provost who oversees UI International Programs. “The middle of the day is prime time. You go at 5 or 6 at night and it’s a different environment.”

At the south end of the mall, diners can find sushi, pho, grilled eel or bubble tea.


The major draw is the Seoul Grill, which starts forming a line by 11 a.m. each weekday the UI is in session and stays full until the restaurant closes at 2 p.m. The menu includes udon noodle soup (with fried onion, shrimp, mushrooms, crabcake, boiled egg and green onion) for $8.95, bulkoki barbecue for $9.95 and kimchee pork for $11.50.

“We’re kind of busy,” a young man behind the counter said to a reporter’s interview request. And they were.

Even at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, all seven tables inside were full and diners with Seoul Grill trays filled more than a dozen tables nearby.

“I like to refer to it as an international food court,” said Kevin Digmann, mall general manager. Old Capitol also has American favorites Buffalo Wild Wings, Noodles & Company, Chipotle and Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack. “We’ve really got a little bit of everything.”

Mall metamorphosis

The mall, opened in 1981, has had several transformations. Once a thriving retail center with more than 60 stores, including two department stores — J.C. Penney and Younkers — Zales, Victoria’s Secret and Express, the arrival of Coral Ridge Mall in 1998 sapped many of the stores and the Old Capitol mall’s energy.

When the OC Group LLC bought the mall in 2003, the upper level was mostly empty and the outdated space was little more than a warm pass-through near campus.

But Hodge Commercial Management, which manages the downtown Iowa City mall, added windows to the second floor and started looking for a new type of tenant.

The Gazette leased space in 2004 and the University of Iowa followed, eventually leasing room for units that include the College of Public Health, Information Technology Services, QuickCare and International Programs.


All those workers provided a customer base for restaurants and retailers on the main floor. As UI international enrollment started to climb, the mall continued to evolve with stores and restaurants with foreign flair appealing to both international visitors and Iowans wanting new tastes.

“I’m a big fan of Pocky sticks,” Kim Casko, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, said of the Japanese biscuit stick dipped in chocolate or other flavors. “I grew up in New York, but I don’t know if I had them there in Chinatown or at the market in Seattle.”

Casko is glad to know she can get her Pocky stick fix at Asia+ and thinks the appeal of finding a familiar snack is universal.

“To international students, some junk food from home might be what they’re looking for, what is comforting,” she said.

Speaking the language

The hiss of the milk steamer and smell of fresh-roasted beans from T. Spoons coffee shop waft just feet from the door of the UI’s International Programs office at the north end of the mall. About a year ago, T. Spoons owner Jammie Goedken hung a sign on the doughnut case attempting to translate the flavors and types into Mandarin Chinese and Korean.

“The gold standard is pointing,” Goedken said with a laugh. But “it’s nice to extend that hand.”

Several banks with downtown Iowa City locations offer Mandarin as a language choice on ATMs and the bustling CVS store in Old Capitol Town Center has Mandarin as an option on self-serve checkout kiosks.

Man Guo, an assistant professor of social work at the UI, meets her husband, an astronomy professor, at the Old Capitol mall for lunch most Thursdays to celebrate the completion of a week of teaching.


“We usually go to the Seoul Grill. That’s our favorite,” Guo said. “But everything there is pretty good.”

Guo, who is from the Xinjiang province in northwest China, likes walking through the mall food court and hearing different dialects spoken in China. But she often wonders whether white students feel comfortable dining there.

He, the UI junior, thinks the same thing, but hopes Iowans and other white students will take the opportunity to spend time in the mall, sharing a meal with Asian students or talking about school.

“Be open minded. There are so many personalities of Asian students. They could know ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Star Wars’ better than you.”

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