Thai food spices up Waynesville’s culinary scene

Americans love pad thai.

This one fact, Nonglak Pafuang is sure of. After moving to the U.S. from Thailand five years ago, she’s learned that the varied cuisines of her homeland are popular stateside, but none more than pad thai, a popular stir fry that features fried egg and rice noodles. It’s just one of the things she’s learned over the last half-decade spent starting and running Thai restaurants around the Southeast.

Pafuang, known to pretty much everyone as Doh, is the manager of Waynesville’s newest restaurant, Thai Spice. The Main Street store isn’t her first foray into Asian dining. She and the restaurant’s owner, Karan Kalongrat, have opened and run two other Thai dining spots, one in Wilmington and one in Anderson, S.C.

Those restaurants are now in the hands of their capable staff, said Doh. And she and Kalongrat have brought their traditional Thai flavors to the mountains.

“We plan to stay here,” she said. “When I look out of the door, the mountains and trees are so pretty.”

Originally, they’d looked at Asheville as their next location, enamored of its beauty and mountain charisma. But they eventually settled on Waynesville, which won out with its small town charm. It took them three months to get the place ready for action, and they opened their doors in early April after checking off a sizable list of repairs and renovations.

And in their short time in the space once occupied by Ceviche’s on Main, she said things look promising.

Unlike the other locales where they’ve set up shop, Doh said that so far, their Waynesville patrons have been eager diners who have been waiting for a Thai option to open its doors.

“It seems like people in this town really seem to know Thai food,” said Pafuang. And while they grew love and support for their food over time in their other homes, she said they started almost from scratch with customers there.

And noticing those customers’ preferences is how they craft their menu; thus, the pad thai.

“We pick the most popular dishes that American people know,” she said, which usually include curries in addition to pad thai.

But if she had her way, Pafuang would be serving the more spicy and flavorful dishes that her home country’s national kitchen has to offer.

While much American food relies on the two heavyweights of flavoring — salt and pepper — to add kick to the cuisine, Thai fare, she said, samples a much broader selection of the seasoning range, both in taste and heat. On the restaurant’s menu, there’s even evidence of this: the options for each dish are mild, medium, spicy and Thai spicy. This, she said, is why her favorite Thai dishes are the most intensely spicy, flavorful offerings that don’t often make their way onto the restaurant’s menu. They’re a bit too punched up for the average American palate.

But she’s confident in the offerings that do feature on their menus, because she knows Kalongrat’s culinary standard is high. That’s why she can focus her energy and attention on making sure customers are not only enjoying a good product, but having fun and relaxing while doing it.

“I like to make a restaurant beautiful,” said Pafuang. “I’m happy when people come and enjoy the atmosphere.”

And she has, indeed, brought a sunny, Asian warmth to the place, gracing the vibrant orange walls with local art from Frog Level’s Gallery 262. A gleaming golden dragon greets diners at the front entrance and sheer white curtains billow behind it and in the front windows. The space itself is small but open, and diners are clustered around small tables that line the walls.

And while it’s a different experience than other restaurants that grace the downtown landscape, Pafuang hopes that locals will continue to warm to it, and maybe even try a new thing or two.

“When they get used to having Thai food,” she promises, “really, they’ll love it.”

(Thai Spice is located across the street from Sun Trust on Main Street in Waynesville.)

Restaurants in Sylva busy despite worries about economy

The economy be damned — the burgeoning restaurant scene in Sylva continues to boom, with four eating establishments in this town of just more than 2,400 people expanding, changing hands or soon opening their doors.

“A hard economic time is really the best time to start a business,” said Bernadette Peters, a marketing specialist out of the Atlanta area who’s backing that statement with the re-launch and re-invention of City Lights Café.

Peters and the other restaurant owners have different ideas about how best to thrive in these challenging times: a focus on trendy foods in one restaurant, down-home comfort foods in another. But these restaurateurs have traits in common, too. Out-of-the-box thinking, for one, and a business eye for the many young professionals and older baby boomers now calling Jackson County home.

Recently released 2010 census data shows Jackson County experienced a 21-percent growth rate over the past decade, a population expansion from 33,273 in 2000 to 40,271 today, anchored by the presence of Western Carolina University. Nowhere is that growth more evident than in Sylva and its increasingly lively downtown scene.

 

Soul Infusion

This restaurant first opened in 2001, and is located in a farmhouse just off busy N.C. 107. Haley Milner and Tori Walters have purchased Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro on N.C. 107 from Jason and Karin Kimenker. Milner was with Annie’s Naturally Bakery for six years, and has extensive experience working in a variety of Georgia restaurants.

“I’ve always liked Soul Infusion a lot,” Milner said, “and Karin and Jason are good friends. I always wanted to run a restaurant, and the opportunity came up.”

The good soups, wraps and other fare at Soul Infusion that helped build the restaurant’s steady clientele will continue, but a few changes are coming, too: Walters’ family has made a tomato-based barbecue for years that will be featured at the restaurant, plus the couple soon hopes to feature a chalkboard menu ranging from seafood to vegetarian specialties. Also on tap, an outdoor covered stage for local bands.

A celebration/grand opening of Soul Infusion takes place April 9, beginning at 11 a.m.

 

Breakfast Café

John Bubacz of Signature Brew Coffee Company, later this month will open a breakfast/lunch café in a small, one-story building across Main Street from the coffee shop.

Bubacz has a history of opening popular eating/coffee-house establishments in Jackson County. This will be at least his fifth, though in a way it’s simply the reinvention of the Underground, Bubacz’s former place on Mill Street (locally called Backstreet) that segued into Signature Brew Coffee Company on Main Street. What didn’t make the address change were the wraps, burritos, sandwiches, salads, juices and smoothies that were once the mainstay at the Underground. That’s where the Breakfast Café comes in — customers will be able to pick up their favorites there, made from local and organic ingredients, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. The new café will be in a former ice-cream shop.

 

City Lights

Peters worked at Bryson City's Cork and Bean (a wine bar and coffee house) a couple of years ago in Swain County. Now she’s in Sylva, intent on bringing City Lights Café back to life.

At one time, Joyce Moore, founder of City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Café, ran both establishments successfully on East Jackson Street. She got out of the café business, and retired a year ago from the bookstore after selling it to Chris Wilcox. Moore still owns the two-story building, and in conversations with her, Peters said she soon realized her vision of the café was the same as Moore’s for the original City Lights Cafe.

“I love to create things where community comes together,” Peters said. “This space is perfect. I’m going back to the roots of (City Lights), and marrying the great concepts that Spring Street had.”

Spring Street Café, owned and operated by Emily Elders, closed last fall after about a year in business. Spring Street featured higher-end dining than Peters envisioned — she’s focused on healthy, tasty and quick.

She’s also in the market for employees. Qualifications are simple: “People who like people and like being around food.”   

Plans are to open April 4.

 

Half Past

In the most innovative category we have Half Past, “home cooking to go … on the go.” Set to open, the owners hope, by the end of this month on N.C. 107 directly across the highway from Soul Infusion. Ernie Sipler has years of experience working as a chef for hotels in the Poconos. He and his wife Joan have lived in the Caney Fork community for 11 years.

Here’s how Half Past will work: You are driving home on N.C. 107 after a grueling, unappreciated day of labor at the newspaper. You’re much too tired to cook, but upon leaving that morning, had chirpily announced you’d be in charge of dinner. What to do? Stop at Half Past, where there will be a full array of food such as beef pot roast with roasted vegetables, chicken parmesan, soups, side dishes, salads, pasta dishes, and baked goods. No indoor seating, this is you-take-it-home catering.

“There seems to be a call for it in this area,” Sipler said, adding the couple has been forced to cover-up the phone number on the store sign because of a barrage of requests they can’t yet fill.

Southern cuisine comes to Clyde

If you had to pick a concept to describe Mary Catherine Earnest, it would probably be local. The owner and co-founder of Haywood County’s Blue Rooster Southern Grill is a proud local girl, through and through, and she said that’s exactly what she wants her new Southern culinary endeavor to be.

“My family came over the mountain from Transylvania County in 1849,” explained Earnest. “I’m a real local person, I grew up in Waynesville. That’s a big source of pride, to be able to be here, to be a local person that’s starting a new business.

“My family’s been in business here for a long time, so I want to work very hard to uphold that tradition.”

And with the November opening of her restaurant in Clyde’s old Wal-Mart shopping center, she proudly joined the ranks of other small-business owners looking to serve the local community.

Asked why she chose to open a restaurant in such tumultuous economic times, Earnest said this was really the most logical step in her career.

She’s been in food service for most of her life, graduating from A-B Tech’s culinary program in 1994. For the last eight years, she’s been one of the top salespeople at Sysco, the commercial food distributor. While she said she was happy — and successful — there, she wanted something new, something of her own. And to Earnest, the uncertain economy made it an even more appropriate time to take such a big step.

“I believe that it’s kind-of a more important time than ever for us to take charge of our careers rather than sit back,” said Earnest, so she and her partner Steve Redmond put together a plan, secured a location and opened for business.

She said business has been encouragingly steady since they opened, and they’re eager for the influx of customers that the Wal-Mart revamp promises.

Since Haywood County commissioners have committed to moving hundreds of their staff to the old storefront by the fall — when the building will house the Department of Social Services and the Health Department — the Blue Rooster will have a whole new crop of full-time and hungry workers as neighbors. Earnest hopes that more than a few of them will become regulars. In fact, it was a part of the business plan from the beginning.

“We’re near all the biggest employers, and of course the big project that the county’s working on, that was a huge part of our plan,” said Earnest, adding that she wouldn’t have embarked on the project if she wasn’t certain the county was going to add to her client base with the project.

When she started toying with the idea, though, Earnest said there were several restaurant concepts that they were working with. They finally settled on Southern cuisine because they couldn’t think of anything that fit the space, the place and their own tastes better.

“Southern cooking is my personal heritage,” said Earnest. “I’m a good Southern girl, that’s the food I was raised eating and cooking. It just turned out that that’s the genre that fit that location.”

She said that being right in the middle of the county is a pro for the business, too, because they’re offering down-home food that you can’t really get in that area.

“Being away from Waynesville proper, you know, with the lake right next to us and of course the hospital, the college, Lowe’s, and all the churches that are out there, we’re right in the middle of Haywood County. And I think Southern comfort foods in Haywood County, that’s what people want to eat.”

Apart from having local clientele, the restaurant is looking to provide local food, too. For someone who spent nearly a decade sourcing good foods and ingredients for other restaurateurs, Earnest said she and her staff are prepared to use the best local food in whatever ways they can.

“In food service, about 150 miles is what we consider local,” said Earnest, and she’s happy to report that they’ve been able to source natural chicken and natural ground beef from inside that range, as well as some other ingredients. And when the spring rolls back around, they hope to be plating up offerings from even closer to home.

“We’ve already had lots of farmers that come eat with us that are saying, ‘hey, we want to do your tomatoes,’” said Earnest, “and that’s really exciting.”

But until then, she said that everyone at the restaurant is happy to be in business, offering their neighbors something they couldn’t get before and cultivating relationships with customers they hope will be dining there for years to come.

“We already have regulars, I mean what does that tell you?” Earnest said, excitedly. “That’s just a wonderful thing, to be able to work my dining room every day with my neighbors and my friends. My 86-year-old grandfather lives less than a mile from the restaurant and eats with me everyday.

“We’re not perfect, but we’re doing things right.”

Lomo owners sell to Atlanta entrepreneur

The inside of Waynesville’s 44 Church Street does not, today, bustle with life, warmth and the scintillating scent of food wafting through the air, as it once did. The former home of the storied Lomo Grill is cold and empty; the open wood oven is not fired up, and chairs and tables are stacked in a corner, across from an empty bar and a kitchen counter cluttered with what looks like detritus from a hardware-store explosion.

Downstairs, old water heaters sit forlorn and disused by the back door and small buckets catch dripping water.

But this is not the start of another sad story on small businesses shuttering. This is the opposite story, one of success leading, hopefully, to new success.

When Lomo Grill, a 16-year resident of downtown Waynesville, closed its doors and papered its windows in November, owners Ricardo and Suzanne Fernandez ended the restaurant’s prosperous run right in the midst of that success. They were juggling the restaurant with two other ventures – Chef Ricardo’s Sauce, a business that grew unexpectedly out of the chef’s famed tomato sauce, and a farm that specializes in peonies and fig trees. While they loved the restaurant, said Suzanne Fernandez, the sauce business was exploding. Their product was picked up by Earth Fare and Whole Foods, and the juggle, she said, became too much. It was time to choose, and when they decided to close the Lomo Grill chapter of their lives, all they needed was a buyer for the space.

Enter Kaighn Raymond, an Atlanta chef renowned for opening award-winning restaurants in the Southern metropolis. Raymond had long dreamed of opening his own place and his eye on Waynesville from the time his parents moved here. He and his wife, Tania even got married in Maggie Valley. But his culinary career required him to stay in Atlanta, building up enough experience and capital to branch out of the city and into his own venture.

“I’m able to finally get out of Atlanta and do what I really want to do, which is opening my own place in a small town,” said Raymond as he worked on repairs in the former Lomo Grill last week.

His new spot, which will be called Frog’s Leap Public House, will feature, he said, a local atmosphere with tasty, local food at affordable prices. He’s interested in serving farm-to-table fare that showcases local farmers as much as possible, offering a simple menu that captures the flavor of its location.

“When people leave, I want them to have a real sense of what Waynesville and Western North Carolina are about,” said Raymond.

But first, there is work to be done. Raymond is giving much of the restaurant an overhaul in anticipation of a spring opening. As he walked through the empty restaurant, he rattled off a laundry list of renovations and repairs, from floors and ceilings to new dishwashers and upgraded bathrooms. The drip buckets aren’t for leaks, but are catching the aftermath of an overall hose-down Raymond had given the kitchen with a pressure washer. The old water heaters had been replaced with new, and new coats of paint were starting to make their way up walls in the basement.

Although he concedes that it’s a massive undertaking in an economic climate that is less-than-friendly to new restaurants, he’s excited to be at last starting on his dream. And he thinks the combination of his culinary success and business knowledge — his father was a career banker — will give him and edge and maybe help him stay afloat.

For their part, the Fernandezes are pretty thrilled, as well, to have finally sold the property. Now they can devote their full attention to their new ventures.

“We are so grateful for the experience of being in downtown Waynesville for as long as we were, and we really love our customers and still keep in touch with many of them,” said Suzanne Fernandez. “We just decided that, after 16 years of the restaurant, that it’s time to devote more time to these two things.”

Ricardo Fernandez, the culinary creator that was behind Lomo Grill, said he won’t really miss the day-to-day life of a restaurateur; he’s got plenty of food-related fare to keep him busy.

“My hands are always here at the farm, working and propagating and also producing the sauces and going to food shows, so there’s always involvement in creating new things related to food,” said Fernandez, adding that he may even entertain a foray into cookbook writing. But, really, he said, the bottom line was that the sale was necessary to keep the other businesses thriving.

“We needed more time to develop this marketing and the only way to do it was through selling the restaurant,” he explained.

And with over 350 varieties of peonies in the ground at their farm and two new sauce varieties on the way, the couple thinks they will have their hands more than full for the foreseeable future. They’ve said they don’t intend to leave the area that has been their home for so long.

“We feel like we were very much a part of the evolution of Waynesville to what it is today,” said Suzanne Fernandez. “We believe in Waynesville.”

Her husband echoed those sentiments.

“We will continue trying to expand what we have here,” he said. “We have 36 acres and we’re pretty happy where we are.”

Kaighn Raymond isn’t complaining, either. Once a visual artist who left the craft to pursue artistry in food, Raymond believes in making beautiful, affordable food, and he’s ready to be doing it in his own place.

“I told my father, ‘when I’m 40, I’ll be ready to open my own place.’ Well, I’m 41 now,” Raymond says, laughing. “Although it will be tough, by doing things the best we can, we’ll succeed.”

Restaurant owners scramble to comply with mandatory recycling law

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Landfills in North Carolina should become a lot emptier due to a new law requiring nearly 8,000 restaurants to start recycling alcoholic beverage containers.

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