Moments to Savor: Growing up at Thai Cafe

A drawing of a bowl of Thai tom yum soup with seam coming off of it, forming heart shapes.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

There are certain restaurants that I vividly associate with my childhood, and one of them is the humble Thai Cafe in Orange County. This restaurant was my first exposure to Thai food, and as a young girl I quickly fell in love with their fragrant rainbow of curries — red, yellow, green, panang and massaman too — and their spicy papaya salad and tangy tom yum soup. My dad would scoop some pad krapow gai — spicy chicken with basil — onto my plate and show me which chilis to mix in to make each bite extra spicy. As a Korean, kimchi played a major role in helping me build up my spice tolerance, but I have to give much credit to certain Thai dishes, too.

I frequented Thai Cafe with my parents on leisurely Saturdays filled with art projects, watching Disney Channel and playing with friends. As I waited for my tom yum to cool down, I would ramble about the latest monkey bars trick that a friend taught me. I would sprinkle chilis atop my chicken and talk about just how much I hated improper fractions. On some Sundays, we would even order takeout from Thai Cafe and host gatherings with people from our church. My friends and I would fill our plates to the brim with curry and noodles and rush off to my room to record ridiculous lip-syncing videos while the adults had their own deep conversations.

These are just some of the memories of Thai Cafe that came rushing back to me when I had dinner there with my father and grandmother a couple weeks ago. I hadn’t been back to this restaurant in ages, and as soon as we sat down, I felt a wave of nostalgia come over me. The cool, yellow interior looked the same after all these years. Our food order also did not change — sure enough, we got the tom yum, pad krapow gai and a green curry to share. At the sight of these dishes, I felt like a child again. My heart leaped with excitement and my taste buds tingled.

At the sight of these dishes, I felt like a child again. My heart leaped with excitement and my taste buds tingled.”

However, this time as I ate, I found myself no longer talking about fractions and recess and “Wizards of Waverly Place.” Instead, I was getting advice from my father and grandmother on whether or not to double major. I was sharing about my tentative post-grad plans in speech pathology and showing them photos from a friend’s bridal shower that I had attended that morning. The food at Thai Cafe had not changed — the tom yum was still sizzling and the curry was as aromatic as ever — but the conversations surely had. They were reflective of how I was growing up.

After dinner, I felt an odd combination of bittersweetness, pride and gratitude. It was bittersweet that I no longer recounted my days with the tricks I learned on the playground and what late 2000s sitcom was on TV.  At the same time, I was proud of how far little me had come and how I even had the language to articulate why certain subjects interested me and why I was considering a particular career path. I was also grateful for the ways in which a restaurant could be an unexpectedly steady presence in my life, holding space for and comforting me with its nostalgic flavors as I moved through various milestones. Thai Cafe took on a new meaning for me that day — it became an extra special place.

So now I pose this question to you all: What is your Thai Cafe? Or, if not a physical place, what is a dish that can encourage and remind you that you are growing up? You may not have an answer right away and that’s okay. The answer may come unexpectedly, but I’m confident that once you step inside, smell the aroma or take that first bite, you will know.

Emily Kim PO ’25 is from Irvine, California. Her current hyperfixation song is “Bad Idea” from “Waitress” and she is still carrying around her Jellycat purse everywhere.

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