It’s easy to forget where you are as you sit at Ubon Thai Kitchen. The soothing sounds of water fountains, wind chimes, and musical stylings that range from John Mayer to Chinese tribal music drown out the sounds of the passing cars on Hwy 99. This food cart offers much more than quality food at a great price, it provides a place for people to escape their daily routine and relax from a long, hard day.
Bill Summers and Pla Phongsri opened Ubon Thai Kitchen in 2009 in the parking lot of a small apartment complex sandwiched between the Best Economy Inn Motel and All American Canopies. The cart sits parallel to the sidewalk and adjacent to the single level apartment they live in. A covered patio connects the two spaces and provides plenty of outdoor seating, perfect for dining outside on sunny summer days in Eugene.
Ubon stands out from the street due to it’s bright yellow color and the covered outdoor seating area which is adorned with strings of seashells hanging from the plastic roof and water fountains providing a tranquil sound. Bill and Pla also converted a part of their living space into an indoor seating area. It is complete with paintings painted by Pla, woodcarvings and other knickknacks gathered by Bill on his trips to Thailand, a large TV that plays a slideshow of pictures of Bill’s journeys, and even a Buddhist library.
Relaxing and peaceful are not words commonly associated with other businesses located in the Trainsong neighborhood. An area made up largely of industrial districts, the railroad, and strip malls there aren’t many places that attract visitors. “There’s not a lot of reasons to come down here for,” said food scientist Bryan Streety who works nearby. “This place has good people and brings people to the area.”
Nor will you find many food carts located in the parking lots of apartment complexes. However, this location suits Bill and Pla just fine. “I like being the only food cart in the area,” he said. “We get more customers than we can handle in this location.” The other tenants don’t mind the location either. Lloyd Brendige, who lives across the parking lot from Ubon, enjoys having it there. “The food is delicious,” he said. “Bill and Pla have been wonderful. The only people that have a problem with them are other jealous food cart owners.”
Bill and Pla share an interesting dynamic. Bill’s voice is hardly audible over the wind chimes, music, and fountains as he takes your order. As you step up to the window where he takes your order the smells of pad thai, yakisoba noodles, and curry sauces engulf you in a spicy, savory cloud. Pla is lively and full of personality yet hides in the tiny kitchen mixing up her spicy sauces and preparing the food. She doesn’t like to deal with customers, she said. She leaves that to Bill, who is constantly questioning, engaging and looking for feedback.
Bill, a real estate broker in California at the time, met Pla, a native of northeastern Thailand, while vacationing in Thailand in 2005. The two moved back to California together in 2006 and married. Interestingly, Pla never knew how to cook before coming to America. “My father was a very good cook,” she said. “He would cook meals for me and eight brothers and sisters, I never had to cook.”
The Thai food she tried in America didn’t compare with her dad’s cooking. American Thai food didn’t have a strong enough taste, she said. So she learned how to cook Thai food the way she wanted it.
Bill lost his properties in the housing crisis of 2008 and the couple moved to Eugene seeking a new start. “Our neighbors told us how good Pla’s cooking was,” Summers said. “So we thought maybe we can make a business out of this, and that’s what we did. “
The cart was such a success that the couple moved across the parking lot in 2010 to accommodate the influx of customers. The new space is bigger and allowed them to add additional seating. They are extremely happy with their location and have no plans to move, expand, or turn their food cart into a restaurant.
The value, the authenticity, and the atmosphere are what sett Ubon Thai Kitchen apart from other food carts and other restaurant options in Trainsong and all of Eugene. Language proficiency test writer Rebecca Fling lives just a mile away from Ubon and is a loyal customer. “This place has a great vibe,” she said. “I want good food and a place to relax. That’s what I get here. Joy Thomson, a home health nurse who lives nearby, thinks it’s the best restaurant in the Trainsong neighborhood. “I love the atmosphere, the music, the décor, I love it all,” she said. “It feels real mellow.”
In today’s restaurant world reviews are dominated not by critics, but by customer reviews. Websites like Yelp are where eaters look when deciding on where to dine out. “I check Yelp about once a month or so,” Bill said. “Out of 34 reviews only two of them are negative; that’s pretty good.” Especially since Bill and Pla rely entirely on word-of-mouth advertising. The word around town is that Ubon is a winner. Lynnea Mccrone, an arborist who has eaten at every Thai restaurant in Eugene gives Ubon’s her stamp of approval. “I would rank it right up there at the top,” she said. “The foods pretty tasty and it’s cheaper than other Thai places.”
Providing value is something that Bill and Pla are very conscious of. “I like to offer good quality food that people can afford,” he said. “Something for the people other than McDonald’s. In an area where the median household income is just above $25,000 a year according to City-Data.com, that’s important.
Even though Pla has only been cooking for a handful of years now it is something she has grown to love. Not just because she makes a living from it but because of the way it makes her feel. “I love making people happy with food,” she said. “It feels good when people say ‘I love your food.’ That is the best part about this job.”
The food truck trend has officially hit Eugene. According to Yelp.com and Ubranspoon.com Eugene boosts over uniquely different food carts. There is a blog for Eugene food carts, Eugenestreetfood.blogspot.com, and even a Facebook page which boasts 805 likes. It seems as if a new food truck opens every day and the trend has no end in sight.
With their low overhead costs, uniqueness, and mobility food trucks are a great way for people who love to cook to get their food to the masses.
Bill Summers and Pla Phongsri opened their food cart Ubon Thai Kitchen in 2009 and have seen it grow into something almost too big for the two of them to handle on their own. “We came a little before the trend hit,” Summers said. “But I think that food carts are great for Eugene.”
Just opened this year the Whiteaker Food Court is a group of food carts located on Van Buren St. located across from Ninkasi Brewing Company. The Food Court includes the Garbanzo Grill, a cart that specializes in vegetarian cuisine, TLC Cart, an Italian cart, and almost any other cuisine you can think of. For more information on the Whiteaker Food Court visit Facebook.com/WhiteakerFoodCourt.
The food cart scene in Eugene provides a great alternative to a traditional restaurant. Could we see a time when food carts overtake restaurants? Bill Summers doesn’t think so. “I think restaurants will always be around,” he said. “People will always want to sit down and enjoy a nice meal.”
While food carts might not put restaurants out of business they have provided quick, quality food options at affordable prices.