Waen Trombetta – better known as Mama Lek to just about everyone – opened Ban Thai Restaurant & Lounge, one of the island's most well-known Thai restaurants, nearly two decades ago. At the time, she had no manager, no point-of-sale system and no dishwasher. Yet customers kept coming back.
Born and raised in northeast Thailand, Lek says she learned to love spicy, sour Thai food at an early age.
"We have one dish," she recalls. "You don't like to eat, you don't eat. ... So we learn how to eat spicy then."
And Ban Thai certainly knows how to do spicy: One of their top-sellers, the Green Papaya Salad, is topped with a liberal pinch (or two) of red pepper flakes. Made from local papayas picked fresh each day, Lek says it's one of their healthiest options.
"It's locally grown, fresh, clean," she says.
For those with a milder palate, however, most Ban Thai dishes are offered with a wide range of heat levels.
In total, Ban Thai offers 91 menu items on any given day, not including specials reserved for the restaurant's recently launched Sunday brunch.
'One of the best decisions'
Until recently, Ban Thai was closed on Sundays. Then, five years ago, General Manager John Trinidad jumped on board to serve as a management consultant, instituting a number of subtle but significant changes that he says improved on what Lek already had going.
"Ban Thai is ... I don't want to say legendary status, but it was popular before we got here," Trinidad says.
Their big goal was to keep Ban Thai open seven days a week, and Trinidad says so far it's been a success.
It was "one of the best decisions we've made," he says. "We didn't even have to spread the word for Sunday nights."
Their Sunday brunch menu is packed with specials, including barbecue chicken, pork and calamari, along with lemongrass shrimp and kao soi soup, which Lek brought back to Guam after a recent trip to Thailand.
Hundreds served daily
The homey restaurant, which seats 60 inside, sees around 400 guests per day, Trinidad says, and that's mainly locals. With mostly four-tops in the main dining area and a small bar on a raised platform just inside the door, their only dedicated party space is the patio outside, which seats up to 50 more people.
Even with Guam's constant threat of rain and a relatively small space for, say, a wedding reception, that didn't stop one loyal bride, who Trinidad says is half Thai, from holding her post-nuptial bash on the patio.
"We have a very loyal local clientele," he says.
The people serving up plate after plate of pad thai and panang curry are loyal, too. Lek, whose kitchen is primarily female – a rarity in professional kitchens – says several of her cooks have been with her for nearly two decades.
Lek is "mother, commander-in-chief, general," Trinidad jokes. "But Mama (Lek) has the biggest heart, actually. Whenever you have a problem, she's the first to reach out her hand."
Trinidad says it goes beyond the food and service. Lek, who arrives at Ban Thai at 6 a.m. each day, has worked to create an authentic Thai atmosphere, and even tends her own garden out back, with banana trees and lots of herbs.
"When you come, (of) course you're gonna see me," Lek says, "'cause I have no other restaurant to go to!"
A taste of Thailand
Lek's husband, Gary, who owns the land Ban Thai sits on, says the tell-tale sign of any real Thai spot is if a picture of Thailand's king and queen claim the highest spot within the restaurant.
Ban Thai, which roughly translates to House of Thai, fits the bill, and then some. On the opposite wall, another picture shows Lek receiving an award from a Thai princess. Lek says she was one of 10 people that year to receive a Buddhist award for her work in one of the country's temples.
The restaurant also features artwork trunk-painted by Thai elephants.
"Instead of fancy, it's just like a home," Lek says of her restaurant. "I want them to ... feel like you're in Thailand."
It doesn't hurt that Lek has included some helpful Thai translations and a map of her homeland in the back of their extensive menu.
Staying true to Ban Thai's welcoming feel, the food remains reasonably priced: Most of the curries come in under $15, barring the King Crab Legs in Thai Yellow or Red Curry, which goes for $28.75 (and let's be honest, king crab legs smothered in Thai curry sauce is definitely worth the price bump).
For those looking to break out of a more typical Thai bubble of pad thai and coconut curry, Ban Thai offers dozens of options, including a Glass Noodle Salad, Plum Glazed Chicken with Cashew Nuts and Padt Mee Korat, a noodle recipe direct from "Lek's home province."
A self-taught chef and restaurant owner – the only other restaurant Lek has owned was a Thai spot on Saipan – Lek says she continues to hone her practice every day.
"You study, really pay attention. Even nowadays after 18 years I still, every day I say, 'That lumpia, you're wrapping wrong; tomato, you cut it wrong,'" she says. "I learn like that."
"(If) I did it wrong ... I do it again," she adds.
She also likes to reference her extensive cookbook collection.
"I go home, I got the whole closet with the cookbook ... if I want to learn something to make it good," she says.
Following a slew of renovations and improvements in the past half-decade – including a dedicated dishwasher, finally – Trinidad says Ban Thai has seen at least 50 percent growth since he started there, though he notes that is likely a conservative estimate.
Loyal to her customers
Lek, however, isn't interested in building her cozy Thai restaurant into a pad thai empire, instead turning her attention to the customers she already has.
"It's good for me (having) just one," she says. "I try to keep the people who come here still happy. Not like, 'Oh, now she got too many businesses ... you don't see her anymore.' I don't like that ... I just want to take care of this and get better."