Restaurateurs serve up the authentic flavors of their roots
Midtown Wilmington has long been recognized as a cultural hotspot, a mosaic of people whose origins are as vast as the miles each traveled to arrive in America. From Greek to Mongolian, there is a bit of worldly flavor in almost every shopping center. Specifically, India Mahal and Los Portales Supermercado and Taco Bar call midtown home. Yet while the southern portion of the county hardly features as colorful a fabric of diversity, one family is staking its claim as a go-to establishment with Thai Spice. This week, we get to know the three families responsible for some of Wilmington’s most authentic global eats.
Ramon Villaseñor came to Wilmington from Degollado, a small city in the Mexican state of Jalisco, around 1997 with two brothers and his sister. They followed their third brother, who arrived in North Carolina first, and joined him in employment at El Cerro Grande. “But we didn’t want to be just workers,” Ramon expresses. “So we decided to open a store first in 2003.”
Los Portales Supermercado began as a small grocery, purveying Mexican and Central and South American products. A year later, a butcher shop was added to the store. “Most of the clientele there, they look for steaks—we’ll cut the steaks however you want: thin, thick,” Ramon assures. “We sell diesmillo [thinly sliced chuck steak], one of the top sellers. We also have tripe, stomach, rabbits. We marinade chicken and pork so it’s ready to cook at home.”
In 2005 the family added its bakery and moved to its current location, 912 S. Kerr Ave. Mexican bread is made daily, from conchas (sweet breads) to bolillo, which is like a French baguette and is often used for tortas, which are Mexican sandwiches. “Top seller is the pastel de tres leches—the cake—that is really good, and homemade flan,” Ramon tells.
The supermercado also sells traditional cheeses, such as Oaxaca, which is typically used in quesadillas. Peppers of all kinds are available, too. “If you make mole or enchilada sauce, or any kind of Mexican, if you get a recipe from the Internet, the supermercado is the place to go,” Ramon urges. “You can find most everything.”
In the trend of steady growth, Los Portales Taqueria—now called Los Portales Taco Bar—opened in 2006 at 1207 S. Kerr Ave. “We wanted to try something different than just a basic, regular restaurant that sells enchiladas, chimichangas, and Tex-Mex,” Ramon reveals. “We wanted to open one really Mexican—something for us, really authentic—to fit the Hispanic population, because it was growing so fast.”
The restaurant features tacos which are representative of those sold in small shops in Mexico—”corner tacos,” as Ramon calls them. “We have tacos with like 15 different meats,” he boasts. “From intestines to stomach, carnitas, barbecue, fish, steak—a lot, a lot.”
On the weekends, pozole and menudo, stews, are offered. “We have seafood soup, which has seven different types of seafood in it [including shrimp, lobster and clams]—really good for hangovers,” Ramon offers with a laugh.
Aguas frescas are natural juices served regularly at Los Portales Taco Bar. The two flavors usually available are “Jamaica”—pronounced hy-mike-uh and made of hibiscus—and horchata, made of almonds. Sometimes there is agua fresca with tamarind.
Ramon shares that in the past two years, the number of Americans trying out the taqueria has grown immensely. “Maybe next year we would like to combine the [two] all together in the same building,” Ramon shares. “We need a bigger place, twice the size of the market.”
For Ramon and his family, expansion is never out of the question. “Everything we do is from passion and a thirst not to go out of business,” he quips.
“The Northern cuisine—well, let me tell you this way,” Sunny Singh, whose family runs India Mahal at 4610 Maple Avenue, begins. “Every mile in India is language, and every five mile is the food, starts changing. So you get to the point where you have a totally different language, totally different food.”
For culinary inspiration, the Singhs pull from their own specific heritage in Northern India. The area, as Sunny notes, is known for more curries and breads. He clarifies that Southern Indian cuisine is typified by dosa, a pancake that is crispy like a crêpe, and idli, a puffier, savory cake. Thus, India Mahal serves over a dozen different breads, and curries for vegetarians and carnivores alike.
The Singhs arrived in North Carolina in 1993, when Sunny’s father, Amarjit, began working as a chef for his brother’s restaurant in Raleigh. “He worked for my uncle for a few years, and then he opened an Indian restaurant in Greensboro in ‘97,” Sunny divulges.
Though the Piedmont eatery wasn’t successful for the Singhs—perhaps due to a lack of adventurous American taste buds in the ‘90s—the family’s prosperity in Raleigh urged them to try again elsewhere. “My uncle, my dad’s other brother, owned India Mahal before,” Sunny tells. “We bought the business, and ever since, we’ve been at India Mahal.”
The transaction, taking place in 2002, paved the way for a much stronger endeavor. Today the brand reaches a new customer base in more ways than one.
In the beginning of 2013, India Mahal unveiled their answer to the food-truck trend: Bollywood Food. “It’s a new idea, something different which gives more exposure for Indian food,” Sunny tells. “Indian food is very limited anywhere you go, but [with the truck] more people will see and know Indian food. Many of [the customers], they had never tried it, and it’s been successful for us. Wherever we go, we get a decent amount of people who buy from us.”
In July, Sunny took on a second restaurant in Jacksonville: Moghul Fine Indian Cuisine at 1250 Western Blvd. “Last Saturday my lease was done, and hopefully by Monday, [August 12th] we will open up,” the young restaurateur offers. “I have a different chef who is going to be working here and introducing some of the new dishes on the menu.”
Sunny reveals the additions will be “trendy,” such as Chicken 65, a spicy, deep-fried plate originating in Chennai, India. He’ll also offer Chicken Madras, named so for Chennai’s original moniker, using a spicy curry sauce. Ultimately, Sunny is looking for “different kinds of textures, sort of like Indo-Chinese style,” within the new eatery.
While Sunny works in Jacksonville, striving to open the restaurant without a hitch, his father, Amarjit, remains at the helm in Wilmington. The Singhs are successful because of their family values, Sunny states. “And the food has always been consistent.”THAI SPICE
An ongoing joke at Thai Spice (5552 Carolina Beach Rd.) is the last name of the owners, siblings Larry and Laura O’Connor. While the duo is clearly Thai, guests often are thrown for a loop upon introduction.
“My dad met my mom when he was on vacation,” Larry begins. “He was working for a company that dealt with transporting freights and cargoes internationally; he was, at the time, manager of the branch in Saudi Arabia.”
Their father never used his vacation, until the company forced him—by then, he’d racked up a few months’ worth. “His friend recommended Thailand as one of the places to visit,” Larry continues. “When he met my mom, he ended up not going to the other places he was going to go. He just stayed in Thailand.”
Following the marriage, Larry was born in Saudi Arabia. Before he was 3, the family moved to Kalasin, Thailand, where Laura was born. Mr. O’Connor traveled back and forth between Kalasin and Maryland; Larry joined his father outside of Baltimore at age 14. A year later, Laura joined them in America.
“When we were growing up, we were the foreign kids,” Larry jokes. Their light skin and freckles set them apart even in Kalasin. “When I came here, I was the foreign kid again.”
With Thai as his native tongue, Larry simultaneously tackled ninth grade and the English language. “I think we came at the right age, where we knew Thai and were brought up in the Thai culture, but we were still young enough to learn English,” he tells. “It was still easy for our brains at the time.”
Though a restaurant was never in the O’Connors’ plans, their mother always had an affinity toward cooking. “Mom had culinary education in Thailand—never to become a chef but because she was interested,” Larry states.
In early September 2010, when Larry was still working as a web designer in Maryland, his mother wanted to come to Wilmington to visit a friend. He drove her to North Carolina. “While we were here—this was already Thai Spice for about a year—we were told the previous owner was looking to sell,” Larry recalls. “We dropped in, took a look at the restaurant, and I could tell that Mom really, really wanted to do it. I could tell—and I knew that she just couldn’t do it on her own.”
A couple weeks later, Larry turned in his resignation. November 3rd, 2010, was the O’Connors’ first day with Thai Spice. “It was really scary, like the scariest thing I’ve ever done!” he exclaims. “But the scarier moment was actually when our first customer came in the door.”
Lacking any restaurant experience—but having created traditional Thai dishes at home with his mother, Sukanya—Larry nervously studied as much as he could about the business. Unless she is in Thailand, Sukanya works as the chef while her children rotate between the front and back of house.
“I think American people are more receptive in trying dishes now,” Larry says. “Their palates have expanded. They’re more open to trying new things, seeking things that are more authentic. Back then, I think they weren’t as adventurous, so Thai dishes I tasted in the ‘90s were very, very bland. They weren’t Thai at all.”
He attributes this partially to Thai restaurateurs catering to their American customers, as well as to a lack of availability of traditional ingredients, such as lemongrass and fish sauce. Larry remembers driving almost to Washington, D.C. as a teen to get Thai groceries from a very tiny store. “It was not cheap,” he tells.
“Nowadays, most Thai restaurants aren’t like that anymore, thankfully, because the ingredients are more readily available,” he alleges. “In Wilmington alone, we have two places—Saigon Market, and very close to it is a new place, Asian Life Market—at least that you can go for a lot of these Asian ingredients. Beyond that, we deal with, I can think of at least four, suppliers of Asian groceries and products. These ingredients are the exact same thing I used to buy in Thailand and cook with.”
Fresh herbs and spices are key in Thai meals. “This usually includes garden varieties of tomatoes, chilies, basil,” Larry adds. “Coconut milk and lime is often used. Our salad dishes, for example, have fresh-squeezed lime juice in them.”
The use of a spoon and fork to eat—no knives—and the rare use of chopsticks, sets Thai food apart from other Asian cuisine. “Part of that is because a lot of dishes are prepared as already bite-size,” Larry tells. “A lot of times Thai people prefer meat to be cut up into fine pieces already. For example, if you were to get ka pow—which is a basic stir-fry dish—most places in Thailand it would come with chicken or ground pork. That’s the reason most Thais don’t use chopsticks. We only use chopsticks when we’re eating noodle soup.”
He amends that Thai restaurants in the States do offer a higher portion of meat than they would in Thailand, thus all dishes here may not have such fine pieces. “American consumers prefer meat,” he says, “and a lot of Thai restaurants cater to their customers that way.”
On the other hand, though small places in Thailand—like Kalasin—are not as diverse as the United States, some places do attempt to cater to their tourists. “When we were growing up, there was this dish called American fried rice,” Larry adds. “I always thought when you order fried rice in the U.S., that’s what you get, but not really. I think it was just Thai people turning their fried rice into something they thought would appeal to Americans.”
Larry says the dish was merely fried rice with ketchup mixed in, and usually with bologna on the side. “I never liked American fried rice,” the restaurateur muses.
Though customers won’t find bologna on the menu at Thai Spice, they will find authentic tastes from Sukanya’s home, such as Pad Thai and curry catfish. “It’s going to be three years for us pretty soon,” Larry finishes. “I remember reading [in my studies] that if you can run a restaurant for three years, there’s a good chance you can stay for 10 if you decide to.”
In the end, Thai Spice is a family endeavor, and that is what matters most to the O’Connors. “I don’t know how long we’ll have Thai Spice, but we’re going to stay with it as long as we can,” Larry urges. “I already know that, in years down the road, I’m going to look back so fondly on this just because it allowed Mom, Laura and I to work together. It’s brought us closer as a family.”