Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Bill Hongmanee came to the U.S. in 1974 to study architecture. He settled in San Francisco, but eventually moved to Monterey to be with his girlfriend (now wife) Dee, also Thai. Dee dreamt of opening her own Thai restaurant. After years of searching for the right place, they spotted a building in Soquel. They knew they had found their spot as soon as they saw it. The building was a total fixer-upper, but Bill’s background in architecture helped the process along; he drew up the plans for the renovation. Twenty-one years later, Sawasdee is a Soquel staple, and Dee’s interpretations of her mom’s recipes continue to be a hit. Menu highlights include the papaya salad, fresh spring rolls with peanut dressing, stir-fried noodles and Thai Basil Grapow. Their housemade curry is also beloved—they have multiple options, including red, green, yellow and panang. The signature dessert is sweet rice with mango.
Sawasdee is open every day, 11am-9:30pm. Bill recently spoke about the flavors that define their menu and the path to owning a prosperous restaurant.
What was the key to your success?
BILL HONGMANEE: Saving money is the main thing. I went from a dishwasher to a busboy in a French restaurant in San Francisco. I was going to school too, so money was scarce. One day I was thinking of inflation and how important it was to start saving now, so I decided to quit school and began working two to three jobs. When I met my wife, she was hardworking too and had been saving as well, so we were able to open our own restaurant business. I say having the right partner is the best thing.
What stands out about your Thai menu?
We try to keep it as authentic as possible, but we also like to cater to locals’ tastes. For instance, because there are many vegetarians, we don’t use fish sauce, so we can offer many more options. Thai cuisine is a combination of flavors, like mint and Thai basil, cilantro, tamarind, lemongrass, galanga and kefir leaves. My wife’s cuisine blends those ingredients, especially in our curries, and she understands the balance, so they don’t overpower one another. This talent is something she was born with.
Sawasdee,5050 Soquel Drive, Soquel, 831-462-5051; sawasdeesoquel.com.