After turning off the last light in her restaurant and hanging up the “Closed” sign, Virada Khowong gets in her car and drives through McDonald’s to order a Big Mac. Another night might find her at IHOP or Applebee’s. Sometime, she slips across the street to In-N-Out to order a Double-Double.
Her craving for American comfort food is undeniable, unquenchable and more than a little ironic because the food she prepares as the owner and head chef of Taste of Asia is five-star cuisine that took years of training and cooking schools to learn how to prepare and present.
“I love the Big Mac,” she says with a warm and welcoming smile.
Virada’s love affair with the Golden Arches goes back to the mid-70s after she arrived in the United States from Laos, where her family had finally settled after leaving Communist China and living for brief periods in Hong Kong and Thailand. Finally, she and her brother were sent to live in Los Angeles while their parents stayed behind in Laos.
They rented a studio apartment, and at age 16, she began attending Los Angeles High School. Part of her instant immersion into American culture meant trying a Big Mac, which she absolutely loved.
“I ask, ‘Where do you buy this Big Mac?’” she recalled. After learning there were lots of Big Macs at the McDonald’s at 3rd and Vermont in Los Angeles, she went there one day after school and asked to see the manager. “Excuse me, sir, I need a job,” she told him.
The manager must have seen something in Virada, because though she knew little English, he hired her. Every moment of her employment was a learning experience.
“I tried very, very hard,” Virada recalled. “When they try to tell me to do something, I don’t understand. When a customer asks me what’s inside the Big Mac, I tell them ‘salad.’” The customer told her he didn’t want a salad in his Big Mac, only lettuce.
Another time she was asked to sweep the floor, but didn’t understand the words for “sweep” or “broom.” Finally, the shift manager handed her a broom and made a sweeping motion with his fingers.
Four months later, in a testament to human beings’ amazing adatability and Virada’s unheard of determination, she was promoted to work the insanely busy drive-through window at McDonald’s.
“I have to open early, 6 a.m.,” Virada said. “They put me there because I work very fast, and I try very hard.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. In addition to going to school and participating on the swim team, she also worked at another fast-food restaurant, Londondale’s Fish and Chips, and worked in a sewing factory. Meanwhile, her brother worked nights at the Bonaventure Hotel.
School didn’t offer much relief, either. “They put me in the 10th grade,” Virada said. “I don’t understand all the words and the books. I have to write down all the words I hear in class and look them up later in the dictionary.”
In high school, she met another Chinese student, Sam, who would one day become her husband. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in city college accounting and bookkeeping classes. While there was no time for dating, there was plenty of time for data entry at the different companies that hired her for her skills and work ethic. “I was very, very quick on the 10-key,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sam’s parents opened the first Chinese restaurant in Woodland Hills, so every weekend, she and Sam drove there to help in the kitchen. Sam didn’t much care for restaurant work, but Virada loved it. She was back in her true element.
“I loved to cook,” Virada explained. “When I was nine, and we lived in Laos, I remember always sticking my head in the kitchen and asking to help.” She learned how to kill the chickens, ducks, “the feathers and everything,” she said. “That’s why when I come here (the United States), I go to the food section. I want to see how McDonald’s makes things, how they do things. That’s very interesting to me.”
Marriage and Moving
Virada and Sam married in 1980, and eventually moved to Connecticut, where Sam was a foreman for a paper company. But the couple also managed to keep a foot in the restaurant business. Their relatives had opened a Chinese restaurant in New York, so every Friday, they would drive from their home in New London, Conn., to Long Island, to help them out and then return home on Sunday night.
One night, however, Virada almost didn’t return. She had gone alone one weekend to Long Island and when her husband, driving from Connecticut, went to pick her up at a planned drop-off point, a powerful snowstorm hit. After meeting, they got lost and only hours later did they finally make it home. When Virada walked through the front door, she passed out, her body temperature dangerously low from the bone-chilling exposure.
“I almost died,” Virada recalled. “They couldn’t call the ambulance because nobody (the roads were impassable) could get through. “That’s why I don’t like to live on the East Coast.”
They finally decided to move back to Los Angeles, where Virada went to work for the appraisal and consulting company, Marshall & Stevens, and Sam transferred to his paper company’s L.A. office. But not long after, the restaurant business came calling again. This time, relatives opened a Chinese restaurant in Prescott, Az., so Virada and Sam both quit their jobs and moved there, too. “Sam really moved there because of me,” Virada said, acknowledging that her husband has always been her biggest champion.
For Virada and Sam, it was always family first. At the same time, Virada also began to dream of one day opening her own place. Instead of always being an assistant in the kitchen, she would be the top chef.
Making of a Chef
For a second time, Virada and Sam moved back to Southern California, with Virada taking a job in Bausch & Lomb’s accounting and bookkeeping department. She stayed with the firm for 10 years, but she never let go of her restaurant dream. In fact, she chased it across the Pacific to Thailand, where her sister still lived. While working here, she asked her sister to research different cooking schools in Thailand. Virada had a plan: any time she had accumulated enough vacation time at work, she would use it to travel to Thailand and take courses at one of the cooking academies.
Amazingly, Virada traveled back and forth to Thailand over the next several years, using her precious vacation time for learning time at six different culinary schools, including The Blue Elephant and the Oriental Hotel. She kept accumulating credits until she finally graduated in 2005 with all her certificates.
All the time, her colleagues at Bausch & Lomb had no idea they had a budding chef in the cubicle next to them. All they knew was that she made the best Chinese chicken salad in the office.
With her certificates in hand and the blessing from her husband, Virada hatched the next part of her plan — finding a quaint restaurant space to lease. She finally found it at what once was a Caribbean restaurant in the woodsy Oak Tree center in La Verne.
“It was only two freeway exits from my home in Upland, and the rent was very reasonable,” Virada said, describing her decision to put down business roots in La Verne.
When she finally told her coworkers at Bausch & Lomb she was leaving and handed her boss her resignation letter, they were shocked that she had managed to keep her secret hidden from them for almost a decade.
“I just feel like, I don’t want to tell people, because then maybe my dream doesn’t come true,” Virada explained.
Virada opened Taste of Asia on June 9, 2008. The restaurant’s name reflected her and her family’s odyssey across much of Southeast Asia as well as her desire to bring the different tastes of Asian cooking to America – not just Thai where she attended all those cooking academies, but also Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Laotian.
At first, she and the restaurant struggled. The economy was tanking, and the Oak Tree center, although on Foothill, is concealed by shady oaks. Blink, and you’ll miss it. Then one of her customers, emailed Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and San Gabriel Valley Tribune restaurant critic, Allan Borgen, who came out and eventually reviewed this morsel of a restaurant, and he liked it. Readers who had seen the story started trickling in. Months later the Southern California Writers Association awarded her restaurant three stars. Then the Inland Empire Business Journal sang her praises. Positive word-of-mouth was spreading.
Opening the Restaurant
Now almost two years later, Taste of Asia is no longer a well-kept secret. About the only complaint you’ll hear about the restaurant is that it’s closed on Mondays.
The food sings. Everything on the menu is a fusion of fabulous flavor. The biggest problem for patrons is trying to decide what to order.
There are more than 40 fabulous dishes on the menu. Here are just a sample:
Shanghai Spring Rolls – ground shrimp, chicken and carrots wrapped in spring roll skin, deep-fried and served with sweet and sour sauce.
Royal Crab Rangoon – Wonton skin stuffed with crabmeat and cream cheese, served with sweet and sour sauce.
Tom Ym Kai – Thai hot and sour soup with shrimp, fresh mushrooms, lemon grass, lime juice, and fresh chili.
House Wonton Soup – ground chicken wrapped with wonton skin, topped with ground chicken, vegetables and shrimp.
Larb Chicken – Minced meat, tossed in pan-roasted rice, onions, green onions, cilantro, mint leaves and chili, served with fresh greens.
Som Tum (Papaya Salad) – Shredded green papaya, tomatoes, carrots, green beans and peanuts, seasoned with lime juice and chili.
Green Curry – choice of meat (chicken, pork, beef, tofu, vegetables, shrimp or fish) in green curry with eggplant, green beans, bell peppers, and fresh basil leaves.
Yellow Curry – Choice of meat with yellow curry, onions, carrots and potatoes.
Pad Thai – classic Thai rice noodles stir-fried with eggs, tofu, shrimp, chicken, bean sprouts, and green onions.
Pad Kee Mao – spicy pan fried rice noodles sautéed with garlic, onion, eggs, bell peppers, and fresh basil leaves.
Drunken Fried Rice – with Thai spices, eggs, fresh chili, onions, bell peppers and basil (choice of meat)
Pineapple Fried Rice – With eggs, chicken, pork, shrimp, pineapple, onions, tomatoes, cashew nut, raisin and curry powder.
Pia Neung Manao (Steamed Fish with Lime) – steamed fish with Thai herbs topped with fresh garlic, carrots and lime sauce.
Chu-Chi Shrimp or Salmon – shrimp or salmon cooked in chu-chi curry sauce, topped with kaffir lime leaves.
Tropical Salmon – grilled salmon topped with fresh mango, tomatoes, onion, cilantro and special sauce, served on a bed of fresh spinach.
Luc Lac (Beef Steak) – Stir-fried diced rib eye steak with garlic, black pepper, fresh onion, cilantro and tomatoes served on a bed of lettuce.
A La Carte
Sausage – Asian sausage stuffed with pork and spices, served with fresh cabbage, ginger and peanuts.
Garlic and Pepper – choice of meat stir-fried with carrots, onions, garlic, and black pepper, served on a bed of shredded cabbage.
Diners will notice, or perhaps not, that there are no bottles of soy or salt and pepper shakers on the tables. None are required because Virada’s dishes are already packed with loads of flavor owing to the fresh ingredients, herbs and spices that she always uses, such as lemon grass, basil, cilantro, mint, ginger and kaffir.
The service is as good as the food. Taste of Asia is family-owned and operated. Her son Sean or daughter Violet will likely be one of your servers. Her husband Sam helps on weekends.
La Verne resident Sheral Dunn is a Taste of Asia convert after serendipitously finding the restaurant one day. “I love it here,” said Dunn, a fan of the Royal Crab Rangoon, Luc Lac and Pineapple Fried Rice. “Everyone here is so wonderful, and the food is amazing.”
Virada is becoming something of a celebrity. There is barely room in the hallway to hang all her hard-earned cooking certificates and favorable restaurant reviews, including five-star praise from Borgen. This weekend, she’ll be offering samples of her delicious cuisine at the Food and Wine Festival at the Ontario Convention Center. She will also be on the menu at the Taste of Claremont on April 24. On May 8, she’ll host a special dinner for actress Linda Blair (“The Exorcist”) and friends as part of a fundraiser.
Virada has achieved her dream. “This restaurant is a miracle,” Virada said. “That’s why I tell people to never give up. Dreams come true.”
Although Virada speaks Chinese, English, Laotian, Thai and some French, some words still get lost in translation.
When word made it back to the kitchen that a customer wanted her to prepare his last meal on earth, she thought he was dying. “I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ is he going to die today?” She didn’t realize that the patron was paying her compliment.”
Many times, after the diners and staff have all gone home, Virada stays behind, setting up for the next day, making sure everything is in perfect order. One glance at her gleaming and neatly stacked silverware drawers shows that she is a perfectionist.
Only when everything looks ready for the next day will she finally lock up and jump in her car for the easy drive home. The short trip takes her right past McDonald’s on the corner of Fruit and Foothill in La Verne, the aroma from the Big Macs as enticing as ever.