RALEIGH — A faulty ice machine may have started the fire that blackened much of Raleigh’s Bali-Hai restaurant on Monday morning, according to its owners.
The Park family says it plans to rebuild the restaurant, which has been a fixture on Wake Forest Road near Hodges Street for 31 years.
A passing motorist reported the fire at about 6:30 a.m. About 40 firefighters responded and found heavy smoke pouring from the single-story building, which was empty at the time. Emergency responders blocked off Wake Forest Road as they tackled the fire.
The fire apparently took its toll quickly and damaged about 75 percent of the building, according to a Raleigh Fire Department report. The report listed the cause of the fire as accidental; members of the Park family said fire inspectors said they had traced it to the ice machine.
When Bali-Hai co-owner Isaac Park’s sister Esther came knocking on his apartment in Cary to break the news, he discovered that his phone was already overwhelmed with messages of condolence and support. The news had traveled up and down the East Coast before it reached him, Park said.
The siblings joined their father, employees and friends at the burned-out wreck Monday morning. The brother and sister run the Raleigh restaurant while their father, Jeen Park, owns Bali-Hai of Durham.
“I’m glad I didn’t see (the fire.) It would have been more traumatizing,” Isaac Park said. “I was born and raised in this restaurant.”
Isaac Park is the same age as Bali-Hai, which his parents, Jeen and Kee Park, opened in 1982. The family had moved to the state less than a decade earlier when Jeen Park’s father, Sung Park, became a minister at a church in New Jersey.
The Korean family chose to cook Mongolian and Chinese-style food, Jeen Park said, because it “had a recipe from a really famous chef, and then we invented.”
Traffic to the original Raleigh location slowly grew from a handful of early customers. Its popularity is built on “grandma’s sauce,” Isaac Park said. Kee Park, 86, still cooks near daily - she’s “the turbine,” her grandson said - but she was too upset to take in Monday’s scene for long.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry so much,” Isaac Park said.
The family has dealt with four restaurant floods, most recently about eight years ago, but the fire on Monday was “by far the worst” disaster it has faced, Esther Park said.
Jeen Park has no doubt the family will rebuild its Raleigh restaurant, while its newer Durham outpost remains open. But on Monday afternoon, there wasn’t much to do but wait on the curb for a parade of inspectors and officials.
Looping around the building, Isaac Park smoked a cigarette and looked over singed packs of chopsticks, charcoal-black furniture - and the giant open grill where chefs cooked customers’ orders.
“We need to salvage this,” he said, staring at the burned piece of equipment. “Maybe I’m just being sentimental.”
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC