Bishop’s Thai restaurant beats the odds
It was the third of September.
That day I’ll always remember, yes I will.
‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died.
The infamous opening lines of The Temptations “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” were penned by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.
While the third of September may have been marked by death in their timeless ditty, if they’d written a song about the fourth of September, and they’d known the history of Weng-Cheong Lim and Alisa Khongnok, the theme might have been rebirth.
Lim, owner of Thai Thai Restaurant (located at Bishop Airport) and Khongnok, his chef, both incredibly immigrated to the United States on the same day – September 4, 1988.
Lim arrived in New York City that day from his native Malaysia.
Khongnok landed in Honolulu from her native Thailand.
Lim, escaping a stifling political environment that thwarted opportunity, arrived in the U.S. on a work visa.
Khongnok arrived as a result of marriage to an American who had been traveling in Thailand.
Both are entrepreneurs. Both quickly founded their own businesses in the United States. Both have reinvented themselves and started over again in new places on multiple occasions. Both ultimately met on a golf course in Hilo, Hawaii. Lim was playing in the group ahead and struck up a conversation with Khongnok’s partner at the time.
“They were both talkers,” said Khongnok with a little grin.
By that time, in the late ‘90s, Lim owned a bed-and-breakfast. Khongnok had a Thai restaurant. She had grown up in an agrarian household and had cooked for her family as a young girl, so going into the restaurant business hadn’t been a stretch.
The 9/11 attack on New York City drove Lim back to the mainland first, as the tourism industry in Hawaii was devastated.
A relationship gone sour brought Khongnok to the continental 48 a few years later.
A new relationship brought her to Bishop.
Khongnok was visiting friends in Bishop and helping out at the old Western Kitchen waiting tables when she served a man named Al Gabbard.
She soon decided to move to Bishop and marry him.
Lim had moved to Seattle from Hawaii, where “I worked four jobs seven days a week.” He then borrowed some money from relatives to open a Chinese restaurant in the German-themed, central Washington town of Leavenworth.
Why a Chinese restaurant in a German-themed town in the middle of the sticks? Well, it’s exactly this type of beautiful contradiction which is a cornerstone of Lim’s. The man is an eternal optimist.
He eventually sold the restaurant and decided to move to the Phoenix, Ariz. area. He didn’t want to own his own place anymore – didn’t want the responsibility. So he applied for a bunch of jobs. This was in 2008. Lim was nearly 65. Employers politely declined. They wouldn’t say it but Lim knew the reason; they thought he was too old.
So he took a trip. And visited his old friend Alisa in Bishop. And decided that he might like it. He asked her to partner in a restaurant. She told him she didn’t want to partner, but she’d cook for him.
Thai Thai opened in April 2009.
As Lim recalls, before he opened, he was introduced to Whiskey Creek’s Greg Alexander, who advised him to really think about some of the obstacles – that he was new to town, and that it requires some time to break in to a small town, that his restaurant location was off the beaten path, and that the country was in the depths of a recession. Was this such a bright idea?
Did it matter? Lim does what Lim does. And Lim does it successfully.
He is quite proud of the entertainment (there is live music three nights a week – check the Sheet calendar section) and the art shows he features in his restaurant, and it’s easy to see that he is grateful for Khongnok’s presence (and talent. The food’s great, if spicy. Lunch’s recommendation: order one level less spicy than you’d normally order).
“We get along 85% of the time,” he said with a twinkle. “In my previous restaurant, it was more like 70% [with the last chef].”
Sheet: Describe your typical customer.
Lim: 95% local and 5% lost tourists.
Lim knows his bread-and-butter are the locals and he is eager to participate in the community. He is starting an art and photography competition in cooperation with the local schools next year and will display local students’ work in the restaurant.
Alisa, meanwhile, likes the small town quiet. And she particularly likes the climate. Thailand, as well as Hawaii, she says, are “too wet and too hot.”