September 2, 2006. My family of six arrived in the United States from Cambodia when I was eight years old. I was taking in the sights and sounds of Seattle, while my parents, Meng Seng Kouch and Chou Eam Chen, worried about what the future holds for our family. No one in our immediate family spoke English, and my parents were unsure about how they would provide for their four children. We lived with my aunt in Ellensburg for about a year and a half before my parents decided to open a restaurant. They understood that this was a difficult task to tackle, but they needed to find a way to make money.
My parents found a closing Thai restaurant in Yakima and decided to buy the business. The previous owners taught them how to cook Thai food, and my uncles from Ellensburg taught them how to cook Chinese food. They figured that having two different cuisines in the same restaurant would attract a wider range of customers.
April 1, 2008. The doors opened and so did our eyes as we scan the desolate bus transit across the street for customers. A few hours after opening, a lone lady walked in. The poor lady had an entire Asian family watching her, eagerly, to see what their first customer was going to order. She proceeded to order a can of Pepsi and walked out.
The first few months were slow and unprofitable, which was understandable as we did not have any advertisement, but after two years into our business we were finally able to have some regulars come visit us every week. We realized that regulars were what kept our business alive. Not only did they support us, but they also became some of our closest friends and made our days working at the restaurant meaningful.
A few more years passed and we continued to build quite a reputation as being one of the few Asian restaurants in Yakima. We are still surprised to see new customers every day because our biggest form of advertisement is word-of-mouth, but occasionally we do get some travelers that find us on the internet. One of the best highlights of running a business is being able to meet the different people that come in to eat. I’ve met a truck driver from Florida, a cute, older couple traveling the states together, but most of the time it’s interesting locals, with a variety of personalities, that come in and eat.
When taking orders from customers, some ask if we could make it spicy for them. Of course, this is Thai food! I understand the reason they ask though, I would do the same thing. I love my food to have a little kick in it, since it forces me to take breaks between bites. Some people might prefer to actually taste their food, but I can’t get enough of the chili peppers we get from local farmers. They are too good.
We are often asked where we get our chiles from, because they are really good. We say with pride that we got them locally, from Benedicto Fruit & Produce. Every summer my mom and I head down to Lateral A in Wapato to buy batches of 20 to 30 chili plants on a single trip. We make multiple trips and give the plants to family and use about 50 of the plants ourselves. Chilies are used to add “stars” (the rating for spiciness) to our dishes and to make a special chilli sauce that, if you can handle, goes with any dish. It is chopped chilies inside fish sauce mixed with a little bit of sugar.
Whenever we visit Benedicto, we never leave with just the chili plants. They have an amazing variety of other fruits and vegetables at a fair price. I highly recommend you visit the lovely Filipino family that owns this store for their fresh produce.
After working here for almost 10 years and having tried all my parents’ cooking, I have narrowed down my favorites to a few dishes. Not surprisingly, these are also customer favorites.
The Pad Thai is a rice noodle dish, popular for its sweet and slightly sour taste. The key ingredients in Pad Thai are tamarind sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, peanuts, paprika and sugar. This dish is easily made and is one of the most ordered dish at our restaurant.
General Tso’s Tofu is a spin-off of the original General Tso’s Chicken and is an appreciated, new addition to our menu. I have been a fan of tofu since I was young and this dish captures the great texture of the tofu, while served with the tasty General Tso’s sauce. The sauce is sweet and sour and is made from green onions, vinegar, water, oyster sauce and soy sauce. This dish was created when a customer asked if we would be able to make a tofu version, so we tried it and it was a success. Many of our dishes are made fresh so customers can make changes to their liking. Some come out great, some not so great (we do warn them ahead of time), but it’s fun and interesting to see what they request.
The Butterflies, are a deep-fried, cream cheese-filled wonton wrap that will make you think “how many of these can I eat before I start feeling bad about myself.” It’s an appetizer that will always put a smile on people’s faces. The Butterflies are a customer favorite and are loved by all ages.
Thai Tea. I know I said I was going to talk about favorite dishes, but this drink is too good to be left out. Some say it tastes like chocolate milk, some say it tastes like soy milk, but I think it tastes like Thai Tea. It doesn’t matter what you think it tastes like, I think you will still enjoy this sweet treat along with your spicy meals.
Po-ou, his parents, Chou Eam Chen and Meng Seng Kouch, and his older brother Pokeang
Although the restaurant business is tough and stressful, it has given us a chance to connect with the community. Some of our closest friends were, at first, just customers who wanted to give our restaurant a try, but the friends that we make are the reason we still have kept the business running. We are nothing without their support and love. Working at the restaurant has also given me another perspective about the food and services industry. I’ve learned to be more patient with the workers, because food and service can be slow when the restaurant is busy. Waiting for food while you’re hungry is not a fun experience, but cooks and waiters are doing their best to get the food out to you. Working at the restaurant has had its share of ups and downs, but I am grateful for the reward that comes in the form of experience and friendships.
Tea Garden is located at 110 S 4th Street in downtown Yakima.
Po-ou Kouch is a freshman at the University of Washington. Good luck to you, Po-ou, and thanks so much for sharing your experiences with rooted!