If you’ve lived in Oakland long enough, you’ve probably heard about Old Weang Ping Village, the worst kept secret in town. Located in a residential neighborhood of East Oakland, right behind Mills College, this little shack-like restaurant offers some of the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten. But after 30 years of running this little gem, owners Pat and Jook Sawanwatana are finally retiring. Does this mean the end of Old Weang Ping? Certainly not.
Pat moved from Thailand to Oakland in the 1970s. He attended Lincoln University and got his B.A. in Political Science. After that, Pat took on a bunch of jobs until he decided it was time to do something new.
“Nobody was going to open a restaurant here,” Pat said. “I am the type of person who wants to do what nobody wants to do.”
The Sawanwatanas opened the restaurant in 1983. But this investment was not about making a profit Pat told me.
“It’s not only a restaurant," he said. "it’s promoting the community and providing a place to eat.”
And you know he means it. The most expensive dish on the menu, including the specials, is $7.75. Pat never tried to promote the restaurant. He actually said that the busiest time he had in the last 30 years was after he registered the restaurant on Yelp.
“It’s not a business, it’s a sanctuary,” he said.
Pat was born a Buddhist. While that aspect of his education definitely influenced his views on life, he isn’t the religious type. But his agreeable attitude and his joie de vivre transpire through the homey decor and the comforting food.
To make sure you can actually enter the restaurant, you should call and let Pat know that you’re coming. It’s good manners and if it’s too full, Pat will let you know! Once in the front, you may have to knock at the door. Pat usually leaves it locked. Inside, a tropical jungle path composed of fake plants and Buddhist decorations leads to the main room, also lusciously decorated with kitschy bamboo walls and twinkle lights. Overall, it feels like your kitschy grandmother's home.
The food menu lists the ingredients and it’s up to the hungry customers to combine them in whichever way they desire. Pick the meat or fish, choose the sautéed sauce from a list of eight sauces or simply pick a curry sauce. You may end up with something like this: roasted duck with sweet basil sauce; pad see ew with chicken; bamboo shoot, eggplant and mushroom in green curry with Thai sticky rice. In other words, the combinations are endless. But if you don’t feel like thinking too hard, you can also pick one of the specials. Some of the most popular dishes are the pumpkin curry and the roast coconut and curry prawn with Indian crepes. Oh, and did I mention the free unlimited Thai iced tea?
Every sanctuary needs a miracle-maker and that’s where Jook, Pat’s wife, comes in. I am careful not to use the word “cook” because she truly is a miracle-maker. According to Chris Peterson, the operator and, as of August 1, the new owner, Jook works with three burners, no timer and no measuring tools and she works alone.
“She is amazing,” Peterson said. “It’s incredible how quickly she does everything. It’s all accurate, fluid and always great.”
The fact that the restaurant has had a following for nearly 30 years, that Pat is an incredible man who built his own cabin in the woods and that Jook sometimes cooks for over 30 people by herself, Peterson feels like taking over the restaurant while retaining its authenticity might be daunting. But he is willing to try his best.
“Both of them are wizards,” Peterson said. “But this place is going to stay the way it is. It’s about balance.”
Peterson met Pat through a friend and they immediately bonded.
“I came in every Wednesday for 10 years,” Peterson said.” I also came for birthdays and special events.”
Pat and Jook had been trying to retire for years and they failed to find anyone to keep the “balance” that they worked so hard on maintaining. One day, Pat mentioned his retirement to Peterson.
“I didn’t think he was asking anything of me,” Peterson said. “Then our common friends told me that Pat would never ask directly but it was his way to ask.”
Peterson hasn’t work in a restaurant since he was 23 and he was, until recently, an elementary school teacher.
“I decided to call up Pat and I said hey, is this crazy? Should I be the one taking over? Pat proceeded to tell me all the horrible things that happen when you run a restaurant and then I said yes.”
Peterson gave notice to his old job in April and started training with Jook.
“If I mess up, Jook pushes me out of the way laughing,” he says. “That’s how I am learning right now.”
Peterson says that he has put out many dishes already and that people finds them excellent. They can’t see the difference.
So faithful followers of Old Weong Ping, don’t you fret! Pat seems to have chosen the right guy to take over the enterprise and maintain the restaurant as the peaceful sanctuary that it is.