The smile never leaves Nataya “Cat” Jungsawat’s face.
It’s there when she greets customers to her Thai Garden restaurant in Tacoma’s Hilltop. It’s there when they leave.
But for just a moment on Tuesday evening that smile vanished and tears began to well up.
She was clasping the hands of longtime customer William Towey.
They weren’t speaking – Cat’s command of English is rather limited. They were just looking at each other.
Thursday (Dec. 31) is the final day for Thai Garden, the eatery that she runs with husband Surus on South 11th Street.
He’s the only cook and she’s the sole waitress. The couple, who go by Cat and Rich to make it easier for English speakers, are moving back to their native Thailand in January.
The Jungsawats, beloved by their customers, are a Hilltop institution.
“Once you get to know Cat and Rich, you’re hooked,” Towey said. He created the restaurant’s Facebook page for the couple.
For 20 years, first with Cat’s mother and then just the two of them, the Jungsawats have turned out plates of steaming pad thai, spring rolls and chicken satay.
The Jungsawats came to Tacoma in 1995 from Thailand to help Cat’s mother run the business that she had opened in 1985. In 2001, the couple, now U.S. citizens, took it over.
Rich and Cat only use a smattering of English but through a limited vocabulary, gestures and their engaging personalities they communicate.
“Customer understands, right?” Cat said to Michael Philichi, seated at a table nearby.
Philichi, like Towey and many of the couples’ other regulars, have gone out of their way to help them.
Cat, 60, has only one kidney and needs health care. She finds it hard to communicate with medical professionals.
“When she goes to the doctor, she cannot explain how she feels or what she needs,” Rich said through longtime family friend and translator Vicki Lousuebsakul.
When Philichi found out why the couple was leaving, he immediately hired a translator to help Cat at her medical appointments.
“This is America. Anything is possible,” Philichi said. “There has to be a solution to this problem.”
While Cat appreciated the gesture, the wheels were already in motion. The couple will leave for Thailand mid-January.
Besides, they did the math.
“It will cost more to live here than go to Thailand,” Rich, 65, said. He can claim both a pension from the Thai navy and Social Security benefits. Then there’s the cost of medical care in Thailand, which is a fraction of what it is here.
Low medical costs in Thailand have spawned a wave of American “medical tourists” who travel there for everything from laser eye surgery to hip replacements.
But Thailand is more than a hospital for the Jungsawats – it’s home. They have a daughter there, and the couple own a home about 15 miles from Bangkok.
Thai Garden is small, clean but well-worn. It feels more like a Hilltop apartment than a business. Customers appreciate the good food and low prices. Mostly, they appreciate Cat and Rich.
When Cat hadn’t seen one of Philichi’s friends in a while, she found his number on an old to-go order and called to check up on him.
Cat not only remembers her customers’ favorite dishes but also the amount of spiciness they prefer, even after one visit.
Towey’s favorite is a customized garlic chicken.
“No celery!” Cat said when she delivered it.
Rich learned to cook from his mother-in-law. The food he cooks at home is the same he cooks at Thai Garden — just much spicier: “10 stars” he said.
As customers came in on Tuesday cries of distress rang out one by one.
“I just found out that they’re closing,” said a glum Matthew Thein, a regular for all 30 years. “I’m very sad. It’s been an institution in Tacoma.”
A few feet away, taxi driver Micael Abraha was waiting for his to-go order and coming to terms with the end of Thai Garden.
The native of Ethiopia says Thai food is slightly reminiscent of his homeland. He always orders the same stir-fry combo.
“I take a break at Greyhound and eat it,” Abraha said.
Taking breaks is not in the work ethic of the Jungsawats who operate their restaurant Monday through Saturday.
Their customers marvel that the pair run the restaurant by themselves and work six days a week.
“Sundays is when we clean, scrub the hood, floor and walls and buy supplies,” Rich said.
The Jungsawats may not realize it, but they actually work seven days a week.
Wearing a pink trimmed apron and matching hair clips, Cat said she won’t miss the endless paperwork that owning a restaurant requires.
But she doesn’t need an interpreter to answer one question: what will she miss most about Tacoma?
“Customers,” she said, pointing at Philichi.