We Love Food But Not The People That Make It
When you happen upon an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant with really good food, your first inclination should be to learn about the people and stories behind it—not just stick your flag in it to claim “first”.
The first time Sincere and I went into Song Phang Kong, it was a warm Spring evening in March of 2015. The sun was setting. Cherry blossoms were in bloom. We were hungry. The tables were bare and the place was empty, even behind the counter. An older Asian lady emerged from the back kitchen, smiling wide. This was Auntie Beng. She wasn’t my auntie but like any older Asian woman I meet, I felt inclined to call her auntie. And the food was awesome. So we kept coming back.
Over the next several months we’d regularly drop in and eat dinner, chatting with Auntie Beng despite our language differences. She was from Laos, her husband from Thailand. She basically ran the shop all by herself. She'd tell us how tired she was, how she'd been on her feet all day. One time she left us alone in the restaurant while she dashed next door to buy some cilantro she had ran out of. Despite the busy-ness, she'd happily take our order, written with a sharpie on a piece of paper, and begin to cook.
At the end of our meals, she would say salamat (“thank you” in Tagalog) and we would say sawatdee (“thank you” in Thai) back to her as we left.
It was an experience that really solidified my idea of what hospitality is, something beyond just customer service. And more than just a cultural inclination to call her auntie, the title began to feel more and more fitting since she would literally treat us like family. It felt like home—she would keep bringing us more sticky rice even though we kept saying we were full. She would give us bottled water and soda on the house. If we didn’t open it, she would make us take it with us when we'd leave, along with boxed leftovers because we were always so stuffed after eating. Just like home. There was a genuine care to feed us—something all too familiar with my Filipino family and culture.
“If I have no customer, I have no restaurant.” She would say, “It’s your restaurant too!”
She had this beautiful understanding of the idea that customers help make a restaurant what it is. It was not a one-sided thing to her and she definitely made that apparent. With all my food experiences growing up, the kitchen was not a spectator sport. It was a always a group effort, especially in a big family with a lot of mouths to feed. In my house, you’d be asked to help with something every single meal time—whether it’s with chopping the vegetables, cooking the rice, stirring the pot, or setting the table. But also, you didn't really have a choice. You had to help. It was an intrinsic part of how I grew up eating. There was no such thing as eating without helping to cook.
Auntie Beng would ask me to get my own water if I wanted. Would make me pound my own papaya salad while she was busy frying up pad khee mao. At the end, paying was always simplified, never exact, and she was always happy so as long as you were happy with her cooking. Just like home.
When Song Phang Kong first opened, a cult-following emerged. There was this “amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant with authentic Laos and Thai food” that satisfied foodies with a novel experience and adventure. There was press here and there; only one article stood out to me that highlighted Auntie Beng in a way that other press hadn't done. Yelpers were buzzing with excitement.
Since then, ratings have slowed. People have updated their Yelp reviews with things like “it fell off” or assumptions of closing because of sanitary reasons. But nobody asked the question why. What happened? What changed? Where is Auntie Beng that ran the entire shop, from server to hostess to chef, all by herself?
Auntie Beng suddenly and tragically passed away on December 20, 2015 while visiting her home country of Laos. Her family held a crowdfunding campaign to help with the complicated costs of expatriation and funerals.
Unfortunately, many people, especially foodies, are more concerned with the dining experience, what they get out of it rather than the stories and people behind the food. Barely any media outlet wrote about her death. Or why Song Phang Kong temporarily closed. And as quickly as the restaurant rose to fame it just as quickly shuttered and all the buzz eventually faded.
After a short time, Song Phang Kong re-opened and remains open Monday-Saturday 11am-8pm in it's original location. Folks are happy again that their "authentic hole-in-the-wall" is back, but sadly the woman who ran it all will never be. Auntie Beng's vibrant spirit lives on in the hospitality and home cooked food still offered through family who now run the business.