On her first Fourth of July as a U.S. citizen, Siriphan "Kiwi" Wongpeng did the most American thing ever: She went to a friend's house for a cookout and then took in a fireworks display.
Wongpeng, who runs the wildly popular Lakewood restaurant Thai Thai with her mom, dad and brother, says that she was the last in her family to make it official. Although she filed her Application for Naturalization back in November, the change in administration delayed the exam until this past May.
The Wongpengs immigrated to Boston from Thailand in 2000, when Kiwi was still in high school. Her aunt, who had a 15-year head start in that city, was running four Thai restaurants. Like the rest of the family, Kiwi worked in the restaurants washing dishes, cutting vegetables and packing to-go orders.
"I did not answer the phone," she jokes, alluding to her lack of command of the English language back then.
It was a random set of events that caused the family to relocate to Cleveland five years later.
"We ended up in Ohio because my mother came to the Cleveland Clinic for eye surgery and was here for a week, and she just loved how simple life was in Ohio and she said, 'We have to move to Cleveland,'" says Kiwi, admitting that the move was an adjustment. "They took me to downtown Cleveland at night and there was nothing. In Boston, there's always something going on."
Within a month of landing in Cleveland, Kiwi's parents took over a small Chinese restaurant on Madison Avenue and opened Thai Hut in its place. They followed that business with the Asian Grille, which they operated for about eight years, until it closed last year. It was Kiwi who suggested to the family that they open a new Thai place that completely bucked convention.
"We were making Thai food for Americans, it's sad to say," Kiwi explains. "I meet a lot of people who had been to Thailand and they always ask about the food they had there. I said, 'Why don't we do something different? Why don't we make food like it is in Bangkok?'"
Within a few months of opening Thai Thai, the family knew it was onto something. The restaurant's stripped-down menu of street foods and Thai classics like Duck Noodle Soup, Kra Praow and Pad Ke Mao was resonating with both Asian and non-Asian diners. And before long, the small 20-seat eatery was packing them in every day.
"By that summer we knew it was a good idea because people came in and liked it," she explains. "When Thai people come in a lot, we know that we are doing something good. I feel really bad because we only have, like, five tables."
Thai Thai's participation at last year's Night Market Cleveland has exposed the restaurant to an even wider audience, says Kiwi, now a single mom, but for now, there are no plans to expand or change course.
"We don't want to take any chance to go to another location and it's not working," she explains. "So we go slow. We're very happy. We didn't think it would go this fast. We just wanted something to do in the family. We're just lucky." — Douglas Trattner