In These AAPI Communities, Meals Arrive With a Pleasant Surprise
How restaurants and cooks are thanking loyal customers.
Food is more than what’s on the plate. This is Equal Portions, a series by editor-at-large Shane Mitchell, investigating bigger issues and activism in the food world, and how a few good eggs are working to make it better for everyone.
“Right now, I like to use my son’s Crayola marker, because it’s like I’m a kid again,” says Nat Chanthanaluck, one of the proprietors of the family-owned Tree Top Thai restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts. In this Boston suburb defined by modest bungalows and a low-rise main street, his storefront catches the eye with its cheerful purple awning and flower-filled sidewalk planters, on a residential block between a sub sandwich joint and an auto repair shop. To know Tree Top Thai, which opened 22 years ago, you really have to live in the immediate neighborhood. On busy nights, the restaurant seats a maximum of 30 people—but that was before the pandemic, when Chanthanaluck switched to takeout and delivery only.
To stay in touch with regulars, he pens customers’ names in cursive script on each plain brown paper bag that goes out the door. Chanthanaluck often adds messages like “stay safe” before bad weather hits or when COVID-19 cases spike. When orders are slow, he has time for more elaborate sketches, like the Statue of Liberty wearing a surgical mask. As a child in rural northern Thailand, Chanthanaluck taught himself calligraphy by studying magazines in his aunt’s seamstress shop and hand-drawn posters outside the local movie theater. (Printed ads were too expensive, he explains, so local artists made the signs for each new film.) When he graduated to secondary school, Chanthanaluck was sent to live in Bangkok with extended family, where he cut vegetables in his uncle’s restaurant. “That’s what Thai kids traditionally do,” he says. “You have to help out with the family business.” After completing a trade degree in art, Chanthanaluck immigrated to Massachusetts where his mother lived, and he eventually opened his own restaurant. Now, his family, including his wife and cousins, help with the cooking. “A lot of customers tried to save us when the lockdown happened,” he says. “They wanted to support us, and I really appreciate them. So this is how I say thank you.”
The care that Chanthanaluck shows his neighborhood goes beyond customer appreciation. He’s adding flair to a service many are increasingly taking for granted in the age of impersonal delivery apps. Giving thanks is an important way to express humanity when small businesses like his have been inordinately impacted by current events, particularly in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, where, according to the Stop AAPI Hate coalition, crimes ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault have reached unprecedented levels.
“Throughout the pandemic, AAPI mom-and-pops have been targeted,” says culinary historian and activist Grace Young, who has been named “Humanitarian of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation for her #LoveAAPI social media campaign and Welcome to Chinatown initiatives. “All across the country—Boston, San Francisco, New York—these eateries and shops that were all about a person-to-person experience? Shunned and shuttered. Bakeries, produce markets, grocers, five-and-dimes: the heart-and-soul places that really personify ‘small town USA.’ We lost so many legacy restaurants when the only thing you could have was takeout. It was apocalyptic.”
As New York’s Chinatown classics like Hop Shing and Lung Moon Bakery closed permanently, something more than menus featuring dim sum or pineapple buns disappeared. Young attests that downtown streets emptied after dark because people were afraid to go out—especially the elderly. That’s when Heart of Dinner came to the rescue. Founded by partners Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang, who started cooking informal care packages in their tiny Lower East Side apartment, the two-year-old organization now works with a local network of restaurants, farmers, and volunteers to deliver culturally appropriate hot lunches, groceries, and pantry essentials to homebound Asian American seniors struggling with isolation and food insecurity in multiple boroughs. “We’ve served over 110,000 meals so far,” says Tsai. “We focus on nutrient-dense dishes, like the ones your grandparents might have made for you. Soy-braised whitefish with rice, cabbage with goji berries, mapo tofu, tomato egg. They taste homemade, reminiscent of childhood.”
Meals are only part of their message. Chang remembers while growing up that her working mom left comforting notes around the house for her to find, and the couple took up the practice together, composing letters of endearment for each other. “So when Heart of Dinner started in 2020, we wrote in black markers on plastic containers: ‘We are thinking of you and we love you’ in Chinese characters,” she says. “We wanted our elderly to feel like they were being wrapped in a hug from our entire community.” Those quickly penned notes were the genesis for what would become Heart of Dinner’s signature—creatively decorated bags and thoughtful dispatches in the recipient’s native tongue—attached to every delivery. “We received thousands of notes, piling in from all around the world, in all these languages,” says Chang. “We now have people hosting bag drives and illustration days.”
Of course, love letters aren’t always the written kind. They can also be something extra on the plate. “Suh-bee-seu, or service, is when a restaurant sends out a free dish, maybe a little corn cheese or a nigiri,” says Eric Kim, author of Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home. “It’s thanks for stopping by, often a note of familiarity, and happens a lot in Atlanta when my dad accompanies us to a restaurant and the owner recognizes him. Koreans like free stuff, and this service is closely tied to a notion of hospitality that’s specific and special.”
“It’s called li shang wang lai in Cantonese,” says Janet Chan, whose father owned a restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown. Now based in San Francisco, she started posting her favorite dishes and discoveries—potstickers, mooncakes, egg custard tarts and peanut puffs, roast duck, even Hong Kong café-style baked spaghetti—on her Instagram @sfchinatown.today to show the community was still open for business. “They might give regulars an extra bao, or won’t charge for a plastic bag. But if I told my dad, ‘Put in a little note’? He would say, ‘We don’t time to do that kind of stuff.’”
Chanthanaluck explains that the Thai expression for this free treat is called thæm, or giveaway. “It means you buy one thing, but the owner wants to give you more.” And for him, that means keeping his markers, watercolors, charcoals and pencils ready when orders appear in the kitchen. “I just want to give them joy. When I started to do the calligraphy, even teenagers were excited. I hope they try themselves, instead of using the keyboard. That’s why I keep doing it.”
Please consider donating to the KK Discount Store Recovery Fund, one of New York’s multi-generational mom-and-pop businesses known for supplying many Chinese restaurants. This legacy store was recently gutted by a two-alarm fire and forced to close until the city allows the Li family to rebuild.