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A reluctant restaurateur finds joy in serving Thai fare

By Michael Tsai

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 08:30 p.m. HST, Feb 21, 2011



Word to the wise: Mom always knows best, even when she's 6,500 miles away.

Nui Hicken's mother, Pang Khongpang, certainly knew what she was talking about when she advised her daughter that opening a Thai food restaurant would be a great way to carve a niche in her adopted home of Hawaii.

Nui, faithful daughter and proud inheritor of the family's talent for preparing sumptuous Thai meals, ran screaming.

"She said that when I came to America I should cook Thai food, and I said 'No, no, no,'" Hicken says, laughing. "I remember how hard she had to work, and I didn't want to do that, too."

Hicken, 40, grew up in southern Thailand, the eighth of 15 Khongpang children. She learned to cook at the hem of her grandmother's and mother's aprons, and she understood almost as early that the small miracles of coconut and fresh basil and lemongrass and Thai chilies they prepared somehow kept the family fed and clothed.

Hicken was managing a women's clothes store when she met a charming Englishman who had moved to Thailand to teach diving. The two fell in love, married and are now proud parents of a 6-year-old daughter, Anna. In 2004 they moved to Hawaii, finding their ideal home in laid-back, low-key Haleiwa.

With her mother's advice still echoing unheeded in her brain, Hicken started selling jewelry at Sunset Beach Country Market. But there were plenty of jewelry sellers and not enough food vendors to sate the rumbling stomachs of the market's visitors. When the owner of the market asked Hicken whether she could cook Thai food, she finally relented.

Hicken plied her culinary skills at the market for three months, eventually saving up enough money to purchase a lunch wagon. Bewitched by her traditionally prepared panang curry, garlic shrimp and pad thai, Hicken's growing roster of loyal customers followed her from Sunset Beach to Kahuku to her current location in Waialua.

True to her own prediction, Hicken now lives the wearying life of the restaurateur. Six days a week, she starts cooking at 7 a.m. (a scandalous three hours later than her mother), opens her wagon at 10:30 a.m. and considers herself lucky if she's counting her receipts by 7 p.m.

And — surprise — she loves it.

"It's hard work, but when my customers tell me how much they enjoy my food, it makes me so happy," she says.

Update: Patrick Gartside (featured here on Jan. 24) will receive an honorary certificate from the Honolulu City Council on Wednesday in recognition of his humanitarian efforts as an organ donor. His story was brought to light by reader Rachael Wong.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@staradvertiser.com.






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