For Hell's Kitchen locals, it's the former home of Pam Real Thai – but for sisters Sommy and Mo Hensawang, every detail of their new Thai restaurant LumLum evokes a childhood memory — right down to its name.
“LumLum is slang from the Northern part of Thailand for ‘delicious’,” explained co-owner Sommy, known as So. “It’s catchy and it’s a reference to where we grew up.”
So and Mo spent their childhoods in the central province of Ayutthaya, about 50 miles north of capital city Bangkok. Their mother and grandmother owned and operated a popular seafood restaurant called Khao Tom Tor Rung, known throughout the area for its high quality dishes and convivial, 24-hour atmosphere. “We grew up watching our grandma and mom run this restaurant, where it was a combination of some street food and some more traditional seafood classics, all served until the late hours of the evening, like a lot of restaurants in Thailand. They also had a karaoke bar, which is a popular feature in a lot of local restaurants,” So said.
So and Mo have now created their own version of their family’s restaurant, hoping to combine the lively, communal vibe of Khao Tom Tor Rung with the relaxed ambiance of their favorite beaches in Phuket and Hawaii. “Our decor is more like a combination of Phuket and Waikiki beach-style,” said So. “We have bamboo lining the walls and the lighting fixtures, and posters of different places in both Thailand and Hawaii — we want to create a mix between Hawaiian and Thai culture.”
While the sisters shared decision making in regards to the space’s design, when it came to planning the menu, “Mo is the chef” said So. “All of the ingredients, all of the recipes are from my mom and grandma and from the area in Thailand that we grew up in, but my sister tests and prepares them,” she added. “I mean, I can cook, but I'm not as good. She’s the best!”
There is an ease to working as a family unit, said So, who explained that their shared memories of their mother’s restaurant have helped the sisters work through what they want their own culinary legacy to be. “My sister supports me, and I support her,” said So. “It’s how we grew up — we stick together, and are stronger together.”
After opening their first restaurant on the Upper East Side (the sisters took over Pro Thai Comfort Food on Lexington Ave and E101st St from a previous owner), both So and Mo found it an easy decision to set their next venture in Hell’s Kitchen. LumLum takes up the legacy of the much-beloved Pam Real Thai Food on W49th Street west of 9th Avenue, which closed at the start of the pandemic. While So moved to the city from San Francisco during COVID and didn’t get a chance to meet the team at Pam Real Thai, she was sad to hear of so many cherished neighborhood mainstays that had closed. “I have several friends who run businesses in the city who have had to shut down, it’s been really hard to see.”
But taking over Pro Thai was a completely different experience, said So, “since we had all of the knowhow and knowledge from the previous owner.” With LumLum, “we had to start from scratch,” but the two found no better place to do so than in Hell’s Kitchen. “There’s so much going on here — between locals and tourists, we knew that opening in this neighborhood would be a game changer,” said So.
The time was right, she added, to open a brand-new Thai restaurant with a focus on the region’s traditional ingredients. “We felt like we couldn’t find any entire restaurants like Khao Tom Tor Rung in New York City, specifically that served authentic Thai ingredients,” said So. “I know that many restaurants say ‘Oh, this is authentic, our food is the real thing.’ But we really take pride in our authenticity. For example, take Pad Thai — most restaurants use scallion, which you’d never find in Pad Thai in Thailand. We use dried shrimp, which is very hard to find here, as well as chives instead of scallion, which is traditional to the dish.”
She believes that attention to detail is vital to experiencing the region’s dishes as they were meant to taste. “We focus on the details — Thai green pepper and lemongrass instead of bell pepper in Drunken Noodles, the use of fish sauce, Thai herbs like tamarind — so that every dish is authentic to how we grew up,” said So. Recipes with even more meaning are those like their grandmother’s Muk Tom Nam Dum soup, a squid and egg layered specialty that Mo and So are happy to pass on to new diners. “We want them to taste the memory, and our culture,” So explained.
Many locals have already ventured over, eager to try the Hensawang sisters’ family recipes. “We had a soft opening this week and we were already at capacity — I’m overwhelmed by the response,” said So. “We’ve had people in the neighborhood come by during construction to ask us about opening, a bunch of our neighbors coming by to say, ‘We want to support you, we would love to come by.’ People in the area never stop surprising me with how much they want to help and support local businesses. It’s beyond exciting.”
So attributes this loyalty to the city’s foodie culture, and both she and Mo are thrilled to join the ranks of the Hell’s Kitchen culinary landscape for years to come. “There are so many businesses in the neighborhood that have been here for years — a bakery that’s been here for 20 years, a restaurant that’s been on the corner for 10 years. We are so grateful for the community here,” she said. “It’s New York — you can just feel the energy.”
This story originally appeared in W42ST.nyc on April 23, 2022 as: Sisters So and Mo Bring Delicious Real Thai Food Back to Pam’s Old Spot with LumLum
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