Inside Thom Pak's restaurant, it was just the two of us. So I did what I've been dying to do since I started eating at River Wok, ordering—every single time—the Wonton Noodle Soup.
"How do you make the magical vegetable broth?" I asked.
Thom had anticipated this question because, unlike me, he'd seen and apparently memorized Kung Fu Panda. (I Googled his answer after leaving.)
"The secret ingredient to the secret ingredient soup is ..."
Pause. Long pause.
Thom grinned his missing-a-front-tooth grin, pleased with himself. He should be, because that broth, man, that broth. It's like a clear amber pool, perfectly salted, then loaded up with crisp-hot haricot verts, mushrooms, onions, carrots. You almost don't need the wontons, little handmade pillows for your mouth, but they're there and you pop one in and you're, like, well, now I can die.
Thom's glad I'm ga-ga for his wonton soup, but he's humoring me. "One of the questions I get asked the most is, 'What's your favorite (item on the menu)?' And my answer will always be one of each.
"It's interesting. You have the most intelligent people coming in and asking the most stupid questions. 'Is this any goooood?'" he continues in his best American accent. "No, it's not. That's why I put it on the menu."
It's not that Thom, who grew up in Hong Kong, doesn't suffer fools. He kind of has to as a one-man restaurant where he's the waiter, bartender, prep cook, chef, cashier and bookkeeper. He also spent 26 years in retail, a lot of them in upper-management of huge chains.
He moved 22 times in those 26 years, all over the western U.S. For the last 16, he's been in Missoula. His wife's a Lewistown girl. They met while both were at University of Great Falls. She wanted to come back to Montana, so that's what they did. Now he's "retired," running a restaurant open for lunch and dinner six days a week.
On Sundays, he's off. That's when everyone shows up at his house for a huge meal he, of course, cooks. On a recent day off, he made "curry chicken, the beef tenderloin, fried rice—because a couple of my daughter's friends can't live without fried rice—a noodle dish, mixed salads with the mandarin orange dressing." Their four grown kids no longer live in Missoula. Their friends, though, still show up. That's fine by Thom. "It's a comfy feeling," he says.
The last time someone cooked for him was, well, let him think. Oh! About a year ago when he went to a restaurant in Canada.
Even though he's got this place on East Broadway and has been doing steady business since it opened in 2005, Thom says he really is retired. Cooking is his hobby, "like fishing."
"I have this restaurant so I can be away from corporate America and don't have to be away from home that much," he says. "I could spend time with my kids when they were going through the University of Montana here."
He can also put up a sign and shut the place down for a few days when he wants to. "It's a convenience for me," he says. But the restaurant does make money. I asked because it's never packed. Apparently, looks are deceiving. His record for one day, he says, was 660 dishes. Takeout, especially at lunch, is the bulk of his business and regulars know to call in the morning and leave their orders on his answering machine.
A big change for takeout, order-in and his occasional catering job was his introduction of a dim-sum menu about three years ago. He'd always done a couple popular items (pot stickers, spring rolls), but now he offers 16. Ha gau (steamed shrimp dumpling) is there, as are barbecue pork buns and what he says is the world's perfect health food, edamame beans.
They, like everything on his huge menu, are made-to-order, from scratch, every time. If he sells out, he sells out.
And though he won't tell you what's goooood, a few regulars are big on one dim sum in particular: Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf. He takes a special rice and cooks it with mushrooms, tofu and carrots to make a pasty goodness he then steams inside the leaf pouch, which infuses it with flavors. It's so good, one customer who moved away now has it shipped to her.
Recent University of Montana grad Megan Jae Riggs now lives in Skaneateles, N.Y., and confirmed, via a Facebook message, this is all true: "Haha that is too funny! Yes, my boyfriend and I were quite the regulars there and Thom kinda loved us like his own. When we moved he said he would ship us sticky rice because it had been back-ordered for a couple months before we left and we didn't get the chance to eat it again."
Now, Thom Pak's not going to ship lotus pouches to just anyone. And it's not exactly open-house at his place on Sundays. Good thing River Wok's open. You might want to get the soup.