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L.a. / N.y.c.-- A Tangy Combination

January 11, 1987|RUTH REICHL

"It was like being in the Twilight Zone," the man recalled later.

It was a crisp evening last fall in New York and the Los Angeles native was out walking with a friend. They were having one of those delicious discussions you have when you're hungry, one of those talks when you recall all your favorite dishes in exquisite detail. The Angeleno was talking about Thai toast and mee krob and spicy mint noodles; he was telling the New Yorker about Tommy Tang's, a restaurant he could not afford to miss the next time he came to the coast. Just then, a neon light flashed over a doorway for the first time. The Angeleno blanched; he went as far as the corner and then said to his friend, "Turn around and look at that sign. What does it say?" The friend gasped. Spelled out in pink neon were the words "Tommy Tang's."

Tommy Tang swears that this is a true story about the night the lights went on in his New York restaurant. Judging from the reception the new restaurant received, it just might be true, for the city turned out to welcome Tang as if he were bringing the food of life. Tommy Tang's was packed from the start; in a city that craved heat, reviewers greeted his food as the "most provocative Thai food in town."

"I never expected it to be received as quickly as it was," says Tang with uncharacteristic modesty. The chef is young (38), brash and has the gift of gab. He has been many things (among them a busboy, a wheelbarrow maker, an auto mechanic, a debater, a boxer, a tennis teacher, a switchboard operator and a rock-band manager.) He not only designs his own dishes, he also designs his own restaurants. Creativity is his favorite word, and if there's anything he can't do, he has yet to discover it. "I went to New York," he says, "because I get bored doing the same thing all the time; I wanted to see new seafood, to have change, to be creative."

We've heard that from a lot of California chefs; at one time or another, Michael McCarty, Piero Selvaggio, Wolfgang Puck, John Sedlar and Jeremiah Tower were all considering a second restaurant in New York. Ultimately none panned out. Why was Tommy Tang the first to make the bicoastal leap? "It's a different world there," Tang says. "The mentality in New York is different. The life style is different. You have to be able to adapt."

No problem for Tommy Tang--adapting to his environment has been the secret of his success. He arrived in Los Angeles from Bangkok in 1972 with no money and a fourth-grade education. "I felt that my future lay here." He soon discovered, however, that there was no future to be found in the Thai community. Tang moved. He went to school. He went through a dozen jobs. "I wanted to make a name for myself," he says. He never expected it to be as a chef.

"I hated cooking in the beginning, but I've been cooking for years. My father owned a cafe in Bangkok." And so he went to Chan Dara, where he perfected a repertoire that consisted of "not-too-spicy dishes that appealed to Americans." (This particular American finds the food a bit bland.) He was promoted to cook, executive chef and manager. "Since I was taken on," he said at the time, "business not only improved but sky-rocketed."

By then, Tang was looking for backers for a restaurant of his own. But when he married Sandi Arabia, a feisty Italian Jew from Pittsburgh, she convinced him that they could open the restaurant with their own money. "With his creative genius and my determination," she says, they opened the doors in 1982 with only $15,000.

The restaurant was the first new-wave Thai restaurant in town, and it was an immediate hit. There were lines out the door. "A lot of our customers--actors and actresses--they all said we should open a restaurant in Manhattan," says Tommy. "At first, I thought they were just being gracious," adds Sandi. Then the Tangs went to New York themselves. They were there to do a benefit with a group of other chefs, and one night the hungry cooks went looking for Thai food. "And then we realized that those people telling us to open in New York weren't being gracious--they were being honest. There was nothing like our restaurant here." The Tangs looked at each other and said, "Why not?"

But they moved cautiously. "It took me two years to figure New York out," says Tommy. "I didn't feel comfortable on Columbus Avenue. Or Chelsea. We wanted something more artistic."

No neighborhood in New York is artsier than TriBeCa (an acronym for "triangle below Canal"), just south of SoHo. It is the new darling of the Manhattan art community; the Tangs loved it at once. They discovered that a little restaurant called Exile was available. They signed the lease, which included the use of a small lot across the street where they can grow their own spices in the spring.

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