Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, September 07, 2005
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Great dishes — and a karaoke setup — may keep Ray Yang singin’ all the way to the bank.
Uncle Yang’s
1308 Brown Trail, Bedford. 817-282-2698.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Yin and Yang

After an earlier setback, a Laotian immigrant tries to realize the American dream in a Thai-Chinese menu.

By JIMMY FOWLER

When he describes his experiences as an immigrant from Laos, 52-year-old restaurateur Ray Yang can’t help but sound very American. “I hate to talk like a politician,” he said. “But I really appreciate that the U.S. has given us the opportunity to do whatever we want to do.” He lingers on a wicked pause. “Legally.”

Owner of the recently opened Thai-Chinese eatery Uncle Yang’s in Bedford, Yang has carefully plotted his career decisions since he arrived with his wife and children on the shores of San Francisco in 1981. Each choice has been a calculated combination of maximum financial benefit and independence. All his life, Yang has wanted to work for himself. Most of the time, he hasn’t been able to; he’s worked as a car salesman and as a box factory employee. Despite that, he and his wife have been continually searching for opportunities to better the family’s economic situation. He was operating his own janitorial services company when the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 compelled the Yangs to relocate to North Texas.

Uncle Yang’s, located just south of Route 183, is not Ray Yang’s first venture into the fraught waters of restaurant competition. The original Uncle Yang’s, a mostly Chinese eatery in Haltom City, stayed open for a mere 18 months in the early 1990s. It closed in 1992, not for lack of steady patronage, Yang said, but due to a writhing nest of legal hassles and the fact that “my wife and I couldn’t give 100 percent to our children, who were small then, and operate the restaurant the right way.” For a while after that, he ran a much less ambitious, fried chicken take-out joint that even he sounds disappointed about. All he says on the subject is: “I prefer Colonel Sanders.”

Now that his youngest daughter is old enough to attend college, Yang believes the time is right to make a second attempt at his alter ego, that earnest sustainer of stomachs and souls. This time, Yang has a secret weapon, a chef who — like Cher and Madonna — prefers to go by a single moniker. Her name: Nipa.

“She’s like my big sister,” Yang said. A kitchen veteran of three decades, Nipa developed a small but fervent following in the ’90s for her Haltom City restaurant, Nipa’s Kitchen, which served her own family’s heartier-than-usual variations on staples from her birth city of Bangkok. Pad Thai, flat noodles, various meat and vegetable curry dishes, and seafood soups are some of her specialties.

Nipa and her family came to America in 1970. The person who had once cooked for the American ambassador to Thailand in the late 1960s then spent 17 years as a cashier at a local Winn-Dixie until the electric plant where her husband worked closed down. With a sudden need for more income, she finally acquiesced to the oft-repeated suggestion of family and friends — “Open your own restaurant!” — and started Nipa’s Kitchen. It flourished for seven years. “The recipes we used [at both Nipa’s Kitchen and Uncle Yang’s] are my mother’s,” the 62-year-old chef said. “Back home, I was the second-oldest daughter, and there was no question that I’d have to learn how to cook.”

She eventually tired of the constant demands of restaurant ownership and returned to part-time cashiering. Before coming aboard with Yang after meeting him about seven years ago, she taught a class on Thai cooking at Central Market.

Standards from Thailand outnumber Chinese dishes on Uncle Yang’s menu by at least two to one, which is purely a business gesture on Yang’s part. With the current emphasis on shrinking the two-seater American ass, he knew that the Thai formula of lean meats and lots of fresh veggies would find a receptive market. And so far, it has, although Yang admitted that he’s served his share of Thai cuisine to skeptical newbies who didn’t realize how different it was from relatively familiar Chinese fare. Some people, he said, simply don’t like the odor of the fish sauce that is contained in certain entrées. And then there’s the issue of spice. As a Thai artisan, Nipa has more than 15 unique chile and curry pastes to work with. Texans who’ve boasted of conquering the mighty jalapeño discover that the Thai flame is less brash but often craftier and more overpowering in its ultimate effect.

If Yang and Nipa can establish a beachhead of Thai fans in Bedford, where there are only a couple of other places, the duo wants to nudge the Chinese selections completely off the menu and turn Uncle Yang’s into a 100 percent Thai seafood establishment. (The restaurant’s beer and wine license is already in place.) Based on one of Uncle Yang’s existing dishes — steamed mussels in a porcelain pot — all area Thai fans should light candles in hopeful prayer. The mellow meatiness of the thick mussels tethered to half shells is seasoned with lemon tree leaves, green bell pepper, and lemon grass stalks. Combined with the papaya salad — a haystack of moist but snappy semi-sweet papaya strands cut vermicelli-like and mixed with halved cherry tomatoes and a hot pepper vinaigrette-like dressing — the mussels pot makes for a great light lunch or dinner.

Uncle Yang’s isn’t exactly surrounded by bustling development, but the area did support a successful Chinese restaurant for about 20 years, and Yang is hopeful that his latest foray can achieve similar success. Friday nights are already packed, thanks to Nipa’s dishes and the large-screen tv that sports a karaoke setup. Yang is keenly aware of American Idol’s popularity and the fact that, in his words, “everyone wants to be able to sing, including me.” Over the past few weeks, he said, he’s heard patrons’ versions of songs by Elvis and Willie Nelson before ever hearing the originals. Asked if his customers are generally good singers, Ray Yang takes another sly pause. The sound of gathering diplomacy in that silence is deafening. “Let’s just say they love to sing.”


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