In celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Month (AAPI), SLO CAL is proud to deliver a profile of two essential restaurant owners to consider supporting any time of the year. Follow SLO CAL from San Luis Obispo's Historic Chinatown to learning about Baywood Park's "queen of Thai," where the SLO CAL Thai community goes to recharge. Each location is an important part of the culture and history of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in SLO CAL, which traces back to the 1800s.
Noi’s Thai Take-Out & Noi’s 2nd Street Cafe
Los Osos-Baywood Park
Noi Miner moved to SLO CAL from outside Chiang Mai, Thailand in 1994. She not only started the third Thai restaurant in the county, but has become what some call the mother of all SLO CAL Thai residents.
“Especially people that recently moved—like exchange students—they’re lonely,” Noi explains of her mentorship bent. “They feel at home [with us here in Baywood Park].”
Refusal to Quit
In reality, Noi makes everyone feel at home in her two Baywood Park, California restaurants; Noi’s Thai Take-Out and Noi’s 2nd Street Cafe. Both locations are across the street from each other and feature exterior work and gardens from Noi’s husband Ron.
“Because we have two restaurants, we have two staffs, two utilities, two kitchens, so it’s expensive and double the stress,” she says, but Noi has found motivation since a 2016 and 2018 health scare.
“The doctor suggested I close one restaurant. I said I would wait until everyone got a new job, but nobody wanted to quit. It made me think, if they don’t want to quit on me, why would I quit on them? At least I feel good, and my health isn’t 100%, but my heart and soul is with my community and this is the place that makes me happy.”
The two restaurants have evolved over time and their menus and restaurant names might be unexpected.
Double the Space
Noi’s Thai Take-Out began in 1994, and recently reopened since Covid-19, serving a full American breakfast from 7 a.m. - 1 p.m. Across the street, Noi’s 2nd Street Cafe, attached to Baywood’s Back Bay Inn. Here, Noi serves Thai food from 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.
“She’s a much better cook than me,” Noi confesses of Doi. “She’s not only my sister, but my best friend. She now comes in to cook a few times a week. She is great with things that go in pots—clam chowder and chili. She’s older than I am and learned longer from our mother in the kitchen.”
Because of county restrictions Noi’s Thai Take-Out is the last restaurant to be permitted on the land and must retain its name despite now serving an American breakfast.
“Six years ago we were having more and more customers,” she says. “A customer asked me to cook for her rehearsal dinner on our busiest day—Friday. We didn’t have capacity. We thought of asking Bill Lee, who owned the building where the old pizza place was, if we could use his kitchen. Bill said we could use the kitchen, but had to stay open for the public and couldn’t cook Thai food. We agreed because some people had been requesting lighter food from the Thai Take-Out. I started with fish and chips, salads and soup at 2nd Street Cafe, but everyone kept asking for Thai food, even Bill himself!”
Now, Noi’s 2nd Street Cafe serves a heavily influenced Thai menu that was impervious to the Covid-19 pandemic, with take-out and outdoor seating, including their Buddhist Temple Garden that Ron developed after meeting Noi on his travels to Thailand to study the practice.
“We have a tight Thai Buddhist community in SLO CAL,” says Noi. “I never had a chance to get together with my Thai friends because everyone has work and if we wanted to go to temple, we had to go to Santa Barbara, Fremont or LA.
“Ron had created this garden and I talked to my Thai friends, like those who work at Thai-riffic, Thai Classic, Thai Boat, Basil Thai in Paso Robles, Royal Thai closed in San Luis Obispo but they have another restaurant in Arroyo Grande called Thai Kitchen. One day we got a call to bring a monk to this area. It’s good luck for Thai people to have a monk come. We had the monk come every weekend from LA and we dress up Thai, and have a huge picnic. Our temple is a nice place to get together because we chant and understand Thai. I am glad I have this place for them to do what we usually do in Thailand. At night I almost started crying, when the monk lights candles, it feels like a real temple.”
Take Your Community to SLO CAL
Previously, Noi and Ron enjoyed showing the monk around SLO CAL at places like Montana de Oro and San Simeon Cove, located at the William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the monk returned to Thailand, but Noi hopes to resume the ceremony as soon as they are safe for the whole community.
“It’s not only for Thai people, she continues. “Friends, neighbors and public are invited, and welcome to join. This is the way Thai temples work. We eat together, and clean together. It’s fun to do with friends and family. We’re not a poor people, but we’re not rich either. We’re generous and kind. You can see that here, we always offer food to everyone because its a Thai tradition—eating and sharing community. I’m not going to get rich. Our community is family. I am proud to be Thai.”
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Mee Heng Low
San Luis Obispo
Enjoy the history of San Luis Obispo’s Mee Heng Low Chinese restaurant, located in San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown. The San Luis Obispo historic district consists of seven listed historic structures, with only four of them Chinese-associated, one of which is Mee Heng Low Noodle House. While upstairs jazz night festivities are on pause during Covid-19 restrictions, indoor dining has resumed and takeout continues.
Owner Russell Kwong follows in the footsteps of his chef father, Paul, who purchased the Mee Heng Low business in 2009. As the third owners of the restaurant, the Kwong’s have close ties with the founding owners family, the Gins, who still own the historic building.
“I grew up with their grandson,” says Kwong a week before reopening post-Covid. “We were neighbors and our parents know each other well. I’m getting the business and he might be in line to inherit the building at some point, so we might be business partners as well as friends.”
Russel’s father Paul Kwong was raised in England before moving to the west coast in the 1970s.
“My great-grandfather was a fisherman in the Yangtze River in China. I’ve never visited China, but the story goes that he walked to France at one point and married and English woman. She was kicked out of her family because he was Asian. They had my grandmother. We don’t have a ton of information about my grandfather, except he was a Chinese-American on R&R During WWII when my father was conceived. That makes my dad 3/4 Chinese. He married my mother who is not Chinese, so I am 3/8 Chinese—a little less than half.”
Kwong honors his grandparents with the twice cooked pork on the Mee Heng Low menu today. “It was a dish that she made for my father growing up.”
Pictured: Ah Louis with beard with son Howard Louis and two unidentified people, standing in front of the Ah Louis Store in San Luis Obispo's Chinatown, Palm Street. The old Mee Heng Low sign can be seen across the street. Circa 1934-1936. Photo: Louis Family Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly.
Adding to the Cookbook
Before moving back to San Luis Obispo to help take over Mee Heng Low, Kwong spent time in Portland, Oregon working for a James Beard Award winning chef Vitaly Paley. Kwong brought his experience to change up his family owned business’ menu, which skewed more American Chinese with the previous owners.
“A lot of people weren’t pleased when we went to a strict noodle house, but American Chinese food had come to be known as greasy, fried and salty. We didn’t want that.”
Early Chinese workers brought Cantonese food (now Guangzhou and Guangdong), which popularized chop suey (Chow mien if served with noodles instead of rice). “With the opening of the People’s Republic of China to the rest of the world in 1970, other spicier styles of Chinese cuisine became more popular, such as Sichuan (or Szechuan; Szechwan),” notes Alan Gin, of the original Gin family line, in the Mee Heng Low Gin Family Cookbook.
A Return to Normal
And as for historical and entertainment value, modern-day Mee Heng Low is as authentic as it gets.
“We would really cram people upstairs for the jazz band shows. It is what was cool previously.”
Upstairs will be in phase two of re-opening, post-Covid-19.
“It’s like starting from square one, says Kwong. “They closed the street for four years when they built Hotel SLO, and that was about as tough as the past year because nobody was coming in and there were no loans or rent relief for that period. It’s been setback after setback. This is kind of our third time rehiring everyone and starting over again but I think we’ll be okay.”
San Luis Obispo's Historic Chinatown
The building itself has had a long line of reopening. In 1927 Gin Jack started Mee Heng Restaurant.
The original Ah Louis Store, built of wood in 1874, was moved to the south side of the street in 1885, when Ah Louis (Wong On) used his brickyard to build a new structure, now housing Karson-Butler Events. The wood building contained the Gin family's restaurant and living quarters from 1927 until the family demolished it in 1957, replacing it with today's Mid-Century Modern concrete structure but reinstalling the wood building's Mee Heng Low neon dragon sign.
“The north side of Chinatown consisted of the brick Ah Louis Store and a row of wooden false-front buildings like an Old West Hollywood set,” says architectural historian James Papp. “In 1950 the city decided to demolish the entire block to put up a parking lot. Ah Louis’s youngest son Howard fought back, and they compromised on saving the Ah Louis Store," now a State Historical Landmark. Shanghai Low moved to the south side of the street, and when its building was recently demolished to build the Hotel SLO, the neon sign was preserved and installed on the hotel.
"Now we're down to four Chinese-associated buildings in Chinatown: The 1883 Ah Louis Store, 1926 Chong's Chow Mein across Chorro Street (798 Palm Street, now Anderson Real Estate), 1923 Quong and Mary Chong Bungalow next door to it, and Mee Heng Low,” says Papp. “All are still owned by the families of the original builders—Wongs, Chongs, and Gins—but only the Ah Louis Store has full historic recognition and protection. We're working on changing that.”
As for Mee Heng Low, their menu may be inconsistent online at sites like Yelp, so be sure to check the official Mee Heng Low website and look up when they cater at Liquid Gravity. The original Gin family cookbook is printed with a second edition, and available in the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.
Add to Your Itinerary
While you’re in town, Kwong suggests visiting Liquid Gravity Brewing Company and getting outside.
“I’m an avid mountain biker and runner like Cerro San Luis Obispo and Reservoir Canyon/High School Hill is a great one too, says Kwong. “South Hills Open Space is really fun too to go look at the tanker circles. I love SLO CAL beaches, too.”