LEWISTON — On Blue Galangal’s opening day last month, former Pepper & Spice Thai Cuisine customers lined the restaurant.
“I walked in here and then I cried,” said June Bunleng, 48. “Some people hugged me. (One customer) cried, I cried, too, because I’ve been with them for 20 years. When they walk in, all my regular people, I have to shake hands every table from here to there.”
After nearly two decades, Bunleng’s Pepper & Spice on Lisbon Street closed abruptly last October after a health inspection flagged several violations and called for what Bunleng says would have been costly repairs.
Though they hadn’t yet been public about it, he and his brother were planning to move into the former Cathay Hut Restaurant half a mile up Lisbon Street, so Bunleng told the city he’d be permanently shutting down Pepper & Spice. That suddenness, coupled with public legal issues around taxes, left customers confused and asking a lot of questions, he said.
Bunleng declined to talk about the legal issues, which are still in court, or about the past with Pepper & Spice, but he said he has been grateful for the customers that have found him again. The new restaurant passed a city health inspection on Feb. 21, prior to opening.
Blue Galangal is owned by Bundit Sukson, Bunleng’s younger brother. Bunleng is general manager, and both brothers cook.
“I love cooking, when people are eating,” Bunleng said. “They know me. Cooking and having people enjoy (it), that’s what we do.”
The new name is partly an homage to other famous Thai restaurants that start with Blue — Blue Elephant, Blue Ginger — and a nod to a popular spice.
“In Thai, about 70 or 80 percent of the dishes use the galangal,” he said. “When they cook a recipe, you wouldn’t see it, they mix it up with the paste. It’s like ginger, but it’s sweeter than ginger, more flavor. People (do) not understand what a galangal means, but matter of fact my customers eat it already, but they didn’t know it.”
Bunleng said he likes the additional space at the 1134 Lisbon St. location. The brothers took six months to renovate, adding a full bar and updating parts of the kitchen.
Coming in a few weeks: What Bunleng believes will be the only Thai buffet in Maine.
“In Thai, we cook fresh right away,” Bunleng said, which makes buffet service a little more difficult.
He said he traveled to Thailand, where he grew up, last fall to spend a month studying at a five-star hotel with a buffet to learn the ropes.
The lunch-only buffet will also have sushi.
He’s brought Pepper & Spice’s recipes with him, popular standards such as pad thai and curry, and has added new dishes including crispy duck. Vegetarian options are available and people can pick a dish’s level of heat.
“Back then, 15-20 years ago, people (did) not eat spicy,” Bunleng said. “I have a lot of customers, even a little kid, they’re starting right now. When they order they’ve got to have it spicy.”
New signs are arriving later this month to replace the Cathay Hut signs.
Bunleng, who said he works there seven days a week, said the new restaurant feels “like a new life for me and my brother.”
“We’re back — a lot of people don’t know yet,” he said.
General Manager June Bunleng stands in the kitchen of the new Thai restaurant, Blue Galangal, on Lisbon Street in Lewiston in the former Cathay Hut building. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)