My Regulars Brought Me Back to the Restaurant Industry
Hong Thaimee’s restaurant Ngam, later known as Thaimee Table, was a beloved fixture in New York City’s East Village for seven years before it closed in 2019. Last fall, she opened a pop-up focused on Thai homestyle cooking, called Thaimee LOVE, in the West Village. Her words follow.
After we closed Thaimee Table in 2019, it took me a whole year to recover from that heartbreak before opening Thaimee LOVE. What has helped me during these difficult times was hearing from my regulars.
Almost every day, I get a message, or an email, or just someone saying something like: “We missed you.”
“Your place was where we used to go twice a week.”
“This is where we had our first date, and now we have kids.”
“We miss you because we cannot find anything like what you’ve created.”
Recently, I got an email from a regular, Kelly, who used to go to Ngam every week with her husband when they lived in the East Village. A few years ago, they moved upstate, but she wrote me recently to say she hoped to order from Thaimee LOVE sometime soon, and that she’d make plans to drive down to pick it up. About Ngam, she wrote: “We’d come up with any excuse just to go to sit at her bar and order a green curry with chicken, som tom, and pad Thai. Date nights, birthday parties, and dinners with friends — whenever we had the chance, we would suggest our go-to — it was our place.”
My partner, Conor, pointed out that this doesn’t happen every day. That kind of relationship doesn’t crystallize that often.
It’s because of my regulars that I decided to come back and open the pop-up, to do what I love so much, even in a pandemic. We’ve gotten so much love and welcomes from old customers — and new customers — and it’s been a tremendous support.
These days, I’m trying my best to keep Thaimee LOVE going, to sustain jobs for my team, to keep earning regulars. We’re offering takeout meals on Summerlong Supper Club, as part of an effort to get New Yorkers to subscribe to dinners from 16 different restaurants across the city. I’m also doing virtual cooking classes and meal kits on this subscription service called Table22.
The other day, on Table22, one of the cooking class participants turned out to be a regular from the Ngam days, and the green curry fried rice was a weekly requirement. I had a family book a private khao soi class recently, too, and they told me that they used to go to Ngam all the time, too (“we loved it so much”).
Seeing those regulars and hearing from them, even if it was over Zoom, reminded me so much about how I’ve always seen myself as this bridge between two cultures. I grew up in Thailand, got educated in the States, and then I traveled back and forth and it’s that dynamic is reflected in my food, too.
I remember one day at Ngam when an older diner approached me and asked me if I was the chef. I said yes. She was with a group of other elderly ladies, and she told me that they were there as an homage to their friend who passed away: “She loved your food so much. We had to be here.”
Now, in our new restaurant, every week, we have someone who orders the green curry. It’s always the same man who walks in with this beautiful white dog. Even old customers of Ngam, they’ll walk in, too, and they remember the staff.
I never really had time to think about this phenomenon or fully process it — I was just thinking about how we can survive and how we can do better.
It’s hard to explain, but I feel truly humbled by all of our regulars. Sometimes, I seriously scratch my head and wonder what have I done to deserve this. If I think about it, I think we were just honest with them — in the sense that we want to create good quality Thai food. We know we’ve made mistakes before, and we’re not perfect, but we’ll still keep trying to improve. We treat our diners like family.
I love my regulars. Without them, I would not have what I have today. Without them, my staff would not have jobs. They’re my heroes.
As told to Deanna Ting.
Hong Thaimee is the chef and owner of Thaimee LOVE, a Thai culinary and lifestyle brand that includes a pop-up restaurant in New York City, product line/meal kits, and virtual cooking classes. She is the author of True Thai. Follow her on Instagram.