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Valerie Breedlove had always wondered about Thai X-ing, the basement restaurant across the street from her Shaw bus stop. She’d never tried Thai food before, but something about Thai X-ing’s exterior, with its twinkling lights and abundant foliage, appealed to her.
When she finally stepped down into the shop one evening about 10 months ago, what she saw was a homey sitting room full of plants, birds, fish, and art. Through the kitchen doorway, just feet from the entrance, was Taw Vigsittaboot. The takeout joint’s owner had always run the place on his own, and Breedlove was drawn in by Vigsittaboot’s frenzied performance of chopping, stir-frying, and customer-greeting. “He was like a one-man band,” says Breedlove, 56. “He looked like he could use some help.”
Charmed by the restaurant’s atmosphere, Vigsittaboot’s passion for food, and a cuisine that she “could have kicked herself” for not sampling sooner, Breedlove offered her services. In return for answering phones, taking orders, preparing appetizers, and cutting vegetables a few times a week, she receives all the free meals she can eat—though No. 27, shrimp with cashews, is her favorite.
Thai X-ing, at Florida Avenue and 5th Street NW, could very well be the only restaurant in town with no one on the payroll. Employees haven’t really been necessary: Something about the shoestring operation—and Vigsittaboot’s cooking—draws out people’s generous sides. To date, Vigsittaboot has had nearly a dozen different folks donating time in various capacities; currently, he has three regular volunteers who do everything from answer phones to make deliveries to draw up plans for a new sit-down restaurant slated to open next January at 9th and U Streets NW.
When the new place opens, Vigsittaboot is going to have to make some adjustments to his current business model. It’s not likely he’ll be able to run a 70-seat restaurant and bar on the good vibes of old pals and neighborhood nice guys. At some point, money must change hands.
And balancing the books isn’t exactly Vigsittaboot’s strong suit. “Taw is an artist,” says Bryan Simmons, 25, a landscape architect who lives in Columbia Heights and makes deliveries and “chops vegetables improperly” for Vigsittaboot on Fridays. With that label, Simmons invokes not only the chef’s dishes but also his visual-arts background (Vigsittaboot has done design work for a number of local Thai restaurants, including Jandara, Thaiphoon, and Thaitanic) and freewheeling management style. “He doesn’t organize the inventory or track what he makes,” says Simmons. “I could steal $60 if I wanted to; he’d never know.”
Concern for the business is what got Simmons volunteering in the first place. His first night of work at Thai X-ing started when he entered the open restaurant to find no one there. After 20 minutes, Vigsittaboot returned from a delivery. Simmons told him he’d been alarmed to find the place unattended and recalls the chef’s matter-of-fact reply: “Yeah, I need help.” And help he got, for the price of a few free meals a week.
Here’s hoping the paid employees at Vigsittaboot’s new sit-down venture are as loyal. On a slow Tuesday night, the chef’s longtime friend, Howard Ebenstein, and Ebenstein’s accountant co-worker, Ernest Kabasu, sit at the small table in the waiting room of Thai X-ing. They’ve gathered to talk with Vigsittaboot about the business plan for Thai X-ing’s new, expanded location; the two are offering their advice at a rate that works out to be about one-half entree per hour. In a telling scene, the two discuss the merits of LLPs vs. LLCs while Vigsittaboot busies himself in the kitchen, cooking for everyone and popping out occasionally to tell a story.
Ebenstein grabs a menu and explains how he designed it on his computer. “It worked out really, really good, and it didn’t cost Taw a dime!” says the 59-year-old, who works part-time as a “jack of all trades” for a local real-estate developer. The menu features a few scribbles indicating the new, shorter hours (there was little lunch business in the mostly residential neighborhood), deliveries on Fridays only (or whenever Simmons stops by), and a $2 price hike for Vigsittaboot’s acclaimed red-curry salmon (“I’ve never tried the salmon,” says Ebenstein, joking that “maybe it’s too expensive [to serve to] friends”). As for the handwritten notes, Ebenstein points out, Why pay to print out a whole new batch of menus?
Why, indeed, when you have a few ballpoint pens and plenty of hands willing to help? For Simmons, the sweat equity could eventually pay off in more than just noodles. He’s been helping with some of the excavation work at the new site, sorting scavenged brick, and he and his father may become investors. Vigsittaboot’s creative business practices aside, Simmons has no doubt that the restaurant will be a success. “Taw’s really laid-back,” he says, “but when it gets really busy, it’s no nonsense. He gets…very focused.” Simmons is certain that Vigsittaboot will be able to translate the personal, bootstrap vibe into a full-scale outfit, citing the chef’s “unique link” to his dishes and his excitement to finally design his own place.
If those virtues are lost on a larger clientele, there are always the drunken noodles—which, for Simmons, are worth their weight in wages. “The food is the main thing,” he says.
Thai X-ing, 515 Florida Ave. NW. (202) 332-4322.
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