By Ford Carson
A year ago, Lexington was a Thai dining desert. Now, like a steamy bowl of spicy Pad Thai, it’s a hot market.
Hoi Tong – owner of the newly renovated Tong Dynasty, which re-opened six weeks ago – said his original Chinese food has since expanded to sushi, Hibachi grill, Vietnamese, and, yes, a few Thai dishes. “I know the market,” he said when asked about his menu changes.
Online reviews on websites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Facebook would suggest that Tong knows what he is talking about. On average, the reviews are positive. Although in-person reviews have been difficult to come by, Tong said that his Thai food (in addition to the rest of his menu) “has been selling great.”
Napa Thai, which has brought the cult of Thai dining-out to Lexington since it opened Jan. 18 a few blocks away, has hardly taken notice. “We don’t care about another business,” said Suparat Prapong, owner of Napa Thai. Tong’s has a Chinese chef, she says, and it tastes different. “People know what to taste for. You know the difference.”
But you wouldn’t know the difference from the menu. Of Tong’s seven available Thai options, five are – in name, sequence and description – almost identical to the Napa Thai takeout menu. “It’s the same,” Tong said, “but ours is cheaper.”
Tong’s reopening came after a bad report in May from a routine state health department inspection. The inspector found five “critical” violations and more than a dozen non-critical problems. The state report the following month listed three critical areas remaining, such as a problem “corrected during inspection” of thawing chicken on a shelf over a bin containing rice. A Sept. 10 Virginia Department of Health inspection indicated that most of the infractions had been corrected, and the restaurant was reported as being “much better.”
Napa Thai’s Prapong, who picked Lexington to set up shop because “it had no Thai,” helped run a Thai restaurant in Northern Virginia before moving here. Prapong said that the wait times at Napa Thai can be long, but that the authenticity is worth it. Training the chefs to make a product up to true Thai standards, she said, takes time, and organizing wait staff around college schedules can prove difficult.
Thai food is distinctive in its spiciness but is also known for a complexity of contrasting flavor, which helps explain why it is often eaten family style. Pad Thai, for example, includes vinegar, fish sauce, sugar and chili powder paired with differing textures from egg, peanuts and onion to create a sort of rich stir-fry.
“I really do appreciate knowing that it’s authentic,” said Evan Kueffner, a Washington and Lee University student and regular customer.
Prapong, who can usually be found buzzing through the kitchen, doing several jobs and talking to her staff at a lively pace, includes 15 dishes on her lunch menu alone.
“[Knowing] they got a good meal,” she said, “that’s the main thing for me.”
Tong, 50, is originally from Hong Kong, where he says his love for food began. “Food is a big part of life,” he said, donning his signature single hoop earring that has since been immortalized on sorority T-shirts. “No matter where I am, my apron is always near. I stay here over the summer. I learn every day. That’s why I improve.”
Tong mentioned that he regularly works 10 to 12 hours at a time, usually six days a week. Despite a 45-minute commute from Alleghany County, two kids, and a wife who owns a Chinese restaurant of her own in Covington, he will keep working – as long as he can walk, he added with a grin.
Beloved in the college community for his sake bombs and a social media style all his own – bombastically enthusiastic, usually in broken English with the occasional expletive – Tong is a natural entrepreneur who actively seeks the next opportunity to “bring everyone together.”
This was largely demonstrated through his years of Facebook activity, much of which has recently been deleted, that showed W&L and VMI students smiling inside the restaurant. With the new menu, he hopes to build on this success.
So unlike the old cowboy Western cliché, this town is apparently “big enough for the two of us.”
“Everyone has options,” Tong said, mentioning the almost complete lack of ethnically diverse food in Lexington since he moved here seven years ago. “Business is picking up.”