|SOME LIKE IT HOT: A half-dozen colorful and flavorful takeout dishes from Wondee's Fine Thai Food and Noodles in Hackensack, including a whole sea bass I'm guessing weighed nearly 2 pounds, below. Four of us ate really well with leftovers.|
By VICTOR E. SASSON
The chef at Wondee's in Hackensack pushed open the kitchen door and walked briskly, balancing a freshly prepared dish that was still steaming when she set it down in front of a customer.
It turns out Chef Air-Arisa Katengamkam, who is in her late 20s, was working alone in the kitchen of the popular Thai restaurant on Saturday afternoon with only one server in the dining room.
Wondee's has changed in the many months since the original owner, Chef Wandee Suwangbutra, and husband Tom retired to North Carolina.
But judging from the six takeout dishes I picked up on Saturday, Chef Air-Arisa still is doing a great job with preparation and spicing, and continues to deliver delicious Thai food at moderate prices.
Other areas suffer
I drove over to Wondees around 4 on Saturday afternoon to place my takeout order, because I didn't have a menu.
I last visited the restaurant in January and before that in October and August 2015.
Wynn, the lone server who has worked at Wondee's for many years, greeted me and remarked that he hadn't seen me in ages.
Only a couple of tables were occupied, but he had his hands full.
After I placed my order, I sat down at a table for two that didn't seem clean, so I moved -- and moved again.
A mat inside the front door looked as if it hadn't been swept recently.
When I went to the men's room, it was clean and had soap and paper napkins, but there was water covering the floor from a leaking toilet tank.
Wondee's was never know for its decor, including a dark-blue carpet that became torn and worn years before it was removed in favor of a refinished wooden floor.
Now, the improvements Chef Air-Arisa made look dated, the place is almost as shabby as before and the dining room doesn't even look clean.
What does future hold?
I spent about an hour at Wondee's on Saturday afternoon, and when I left around 5, only four tables were occupied.
Still, Chef Air-Arisa and Wynn were having trouble keeping up with orders, and some menu items were not available.
Wynn said a new menu should be delivered in about a week with fewer items than before.
I've enjoyed Wondee's low prices for years, but don't think the restaurant can survive if it continues to charge only $20 for a whole fish weighing nearly 2 pounds or $10 for Pad Thai.
Maybe, Chef Air-Arisa can find a smaller space in Hackensack at less rent than she is paying now or just do takeout until she can hire more staff.
Wondee's opened in 1997 and would celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.
DON'T DUCK: We also enjoyed a Crispy Duck Salad, lower right ($11), and a large Wonton Soup with roast pork and vegetables, not shown ($9), which was enough for three.
Wondee's Fine Thai Food and Noodles, 296 Main St., Hackensack; 201-883-1700. BYO, parking lot in rear off of Camden Street. Takeout, but no delivery. Open today until 8 p.m. See:
Meet the new chef at Wondee's
Meet the new chef at Wondee's