How a man who grew up in a Mongolian desert is working to bring seafood dining to Lawrence

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Michael Suned, operator of Concept 23, clears a table at the Lawrence restaurant that has a unique menu featuring both sushi and Cajun-style seafood.

Back in February we reported on signs of a new business coming to 23rd Street that sparked some culinary curiosity. It was promoting itself as a restaurant that would serve both sushi and Cajun seafood.

Indeed, that business — Concept 23 — did open a few weeks later. But still, I remained curious what had created that combination, and with the pace of Lawrence slowing down just a bit as summer nears, I recently checked in with the owner.

What I found is a fish-out-of-water story — as in this is a seafood restaurant owned by a man who grew up in a desert.

More specifically, Michael Suned grew up in Mongolia in the vast, nearly waterless Gobi Desert.

“I didn’t eat seafood,” Suned said. “People only ate mutton or beef.”

After coming to America in 2005, Suned did end up in the restaurant business and surrounded by seafood. For about seven years he operated Sushi Station, a Lawrence restaurant in the Louisiana Purchase shopping center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. Then, in late 2022, he opened Louisiana Seafood in a spot next door to Sushi Station.

OK, sushi — while not prevalent in the Gobi desert — is at least tied to the Far East, which broadly includes Mongolia.

But Cajun seafood? How did that happen?

A workplace party is the simplest answer. The crew at the Sushi Station often would want to get together for a meal after work or on their day off. They are surrounded by seafood, but don’t necessarily want to whip up some sushi dishes. If you are a sushi chef, after all, that isn’t a party. That’s just work. But American-style seafood, that’s a different deal. So, they tried Cajun creations, both on their own and at some restaurants.

There was a problem, though. Suned hated it. But May Qiu, chef and product developer for the restaurant, thought she might know the problem. Lots of restaurants use a canola oil and powder mixture to fry their seafood. She started frying the dishes in pure butter.

“That’s what kicked off seafood for me,” Suned said.

But it didn’t immediately lead to the opening of a new Cajun restaurant in Lawrence. Instead, May and the crew went down the deep dark hole that has been known to put the ragin’ in many of the minds of a Cajun: gumbo recipes.

“She made it from scratch, but she really didn’t know what she was doing,” Suned said of May. “But it was good.”

A friend also liked it, used the recipe, entered it into a friendly gumbo cook-off and won a prize. More importantly, he kept getting asked to bring the gumbo to parties.

“That gave us a lot of confidence,” Suned said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Concept 23, 1606 W. 23rd Street, is pictured on May 29, 2024.

Enough so that the idea of opening a Cajun seafood restaurant became serious. The venture at 23rd and Louisiana streets, though, only lasted about a year. The location had some maintenance problems, and Suned decided to close both restaurants and create the new Concept 23 restaurant in the old Pizza Hut building at 1606 W. 23rd St. Even though the space is smaller than the two locations he occupied at Louisiana Purchase, the move made good sense for reasons of efficiency and convenience, he said.

The result is a restaurant that has a huge menu. The sushi side of the menu has nearly 170 items, with more than 80 different types of sushi rolls alone. Also on the menu are various noodle and rice dishes and bento boxes.

The seafood menu features shrimp, oysters, soft-shell crab, lobster tail, snow crab legs, mussels, squid and several other dishes. Gumbo — a shrimp and sausage version and a chicken and sausage version — are the best-selling seafood dishes, he said.

In a Cajun style, the sides include broiled eggs, corn, potatoes and a variety of garlic, lemon pepper and other sauces that come in varieties labeled from mild to “flaming,” which is one category above hot, if you are keeping score at home.

Of course, the sauces are butter-based. They also are evidence of why many restaurants no longer use real butter to create their seafood creations. A single serving of the butter sauce costs the restaurant $3.25 in just ingredients, Suned said.

But, Suned said he has no regrets about his butter investment. He has learned something that we often acknowledge in my household: Most problems can be solved by a stick of butter.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.