Nothing More Need Be Said
The shy genius behind Pom Pom’s and Tako Cheena lets her adventurous cuisine do the talking.
Pom Moongauklang, chef and owner of two local restaurants, has a secret side to her personality. Don’t ask her about herself.
Oddly, in a business that rewards bravado, Pom, 39, is so reticent that when a local newspaper wanted to write a profile, she sent a friend to do the interview for her.
So clues come from observation. She likes hats. She likes people, placing a hand on those she knows while walking between tables. And when her face lights up and her eyes lock onto yours as she talks about new recipes and spices, it’s obvious how she feels about food.
“I love to eat,” she says. “I’m inspired by sight, by smell, by texture.” Her partner, Edgardo Guzman, proclaims, “Pom has a magical palate.” She lives for the inspired magic of combinations, like her ingenious sauce pairing the smooth fattiness of avocado and the heat of wasabi.
That contrast of smoothness and heat is reflected in her restaurants. Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, in the hip Milk District on Bumby Avenue, has been open for seven years. Tako Cheena, with an Asian twist on Latin food, opened in late 2011. At Pom Pom’s, pretty young moms sit on the comfy couch next to club DJs and city commissioners. Tako, next to an art gallery on Mills Avenue, attracts the hipster before stopping in at Will’s Pub or after leaving Wally’s. Pom Pom’s is Bohemian lunch. Tako Cheena, five minutes away, is 3 a.m. Brooklyn.
Inventive food from two distinct menus is the connection. Sample an Indian butter chicken burrito at Tako ($7.98), the heady masala-spiced chicken tempered by a slightly sour Mexican crema. Or a Fu Man Chu sandwich at Pom Pom’s ($8), a wild combination of savory Asian-spiced pulled pork, silky goat cheese and tart and fragrant ginger-cranberry chutney.
These aren’t just menu items, but journeys. Chinese sweet sausage with hot kimchi and cilantro ($3.05) relocates the hot dog. Marinated beef, spicy fried rice and pepper-laden sriracha sauce ($7.98) gives a new accent to the burrito.
Literally born in a kitchen in Thailand, Pom emigrated with her family to Orlando when she was 6. Family and restaurants still go together; Pom’s aunt owns Thai House on East Colonial, her sister runs Thai Basil in Winter Springs, and an uncle owns Siam Garden in Winter Park.
As a chef in New York in the mid-1990s, Pom landed a job at Lucky Cheng’s, an infamous “drag cabaret” Chinese restaurant, then continued her unorthodox career at La Nouvelle Justine, a discipline-themed eatery where $20 spankings appeared on le menu alongside the crêpe Suzettes.
“I was scared to death,” Pom says. “But it was a good kind of crazy.” Her New York Restaurant School externship was at Nobu, the Japanese/Peruvian restaurant of celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, where she first saw the spark for combining Asian and South American cuisines.
Returning to Orlando, Pom worked at Thai Thani near SeaWorld, a restaurant sponsored by the Thai government to promote national cuisine. “Everything was controlled and imported,” she says, “from the food to the napkins. It was smothering.”
All the while, she dreamed of her own place. “I’ve been working on the Tako Cheena concept for a very long time,” she says.
Guzman, who can often be seen in the Tako kitchen, is from Costa Rica and helps develop dishes like arroz con pollo empanadas and spring rolls filled with apple and ginger. Guzman says he and Pom share a philosophy of world influences. “She does comfort food; I like quick and easy. We end up in the same place.”
Plans for Tako Cheena involve an outdoor patio and bold experimentation. Multi-course dinners themed to foods, styles and colors are in the works, along with items like Asian sausages made by hand from family recipes, ceviches cured with Japanese yuzu, and sushi rolls made with plantain instead of seaweed.
And with this showcase for her talents, maybe Pom, whose Thai middle name, Rangsi, means “shining light,’’ will talk about herself a bit more.
“This little place has allowed me to wake up and experiment,” she says. “I’m awake now.”
Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria
67 N Bumby Ave.
Tako Cheena by Pom Pom
932 N Mills Ave., | 321-236-7457
Facebook: Search Tako Cheena