Pom Pom Girl: Orlando’s Greatest (and Edgiest) Cheerleader
One day last year, a man in Seattle took delivery of 20 turkey sandwiches. What’s so remarkable about that? Well, they weren’t delivered by a college student in a beat-up car. They came via FedEx overnight delivery. And they weren’t made in the Emerald City. They came from a sandwich shop in Orlando, Florida.
I’ve been lucky enough to eat at this very restaurant, Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria (67 North Bumby Avenue; 407-894-0865;PomPomsTeahouse.com.)I’ve also been lucky enough to taste the sandwich in question, the Mama Ling Ling’s Thanksgiving. It’s fantastic, a warm, soft, meaty pillow of a meal that I still think about months later when I’m in the mood for comfort food.
What makes it so good? What takes it out of the realm of leftovers on bread and turns it into something a person might have shipped clear across the country?
The secret is probably in the little touches, ingredients unusual in a deli sandwich, like Gouda cheese and ginger cranberry chutney.
But it’s probably also in the more intangible elements, secret ingredients that owner Pom Moongauklang brings to the table. These include an upbringing in places that include her native Thailand, the faded Massachusetts whaling haven of New Bedford, California’s agricultural Central Valley, and Orlando. This childhood base is seasoned with stints as an adult working at restaurants all over the country, from a bondage-themed French restaurant to New York’s famed Nobu. The resulting mélange, sliced, diced, and julienned, creates some kind of special sauce that imperceptibly permeates everything that comes out of Pom’s kitchens, giving basic foods like sandwiches and tacos a funky kick that keeps locals (and more than a few out-of-towners) coming back for seconds.
Pom currently has an ownership stake in two restaurants: the nine-year-old Sandwicheria, of which she is the sole proprietor; and Tako Cheena (932 North Mills Avenue; 321-558-1374; TakoCheena.com), which she opened two years ago with business partner Edguardo Guzman.
If it’s always lunchtime at the Sandwicheria, at Tako Cheena, it’s perpetually just past last call, the hour when you’re open to adventure and your inhibitions are down. In another context, you might not even think things like tortillas and legumes belong on the same menu, but at Tako Cheena, patrons happily gobble up Thai peanut chicken tacos, as well as Korean hot dogs, Indian butter chicken burritos, and a rotating selection of pan-Asian empanadas.
Tako Cheena is fusion taken to a new level—elements of Latin and Asian cuisine aren’t so much fused as they are welded together in what could be an unholy international mess. But in the hands of Pom and her sublimely sensitive palate, it all works.
You don’t have to chat with Pom long to discover that food and crossing cultural boundaries go way back with her. When I ask if food was a big part of her family’s story, she says, “Oh, yes, it was a huge influence.” Pom arrived in the United States at the age of six. The family first touched down in Orlando, but spent some years near Fresno, Calif., where Pom’s parents worked as migrant farmers.
The family destiny seems to lie in cooking food, though, not growing it. Today, fully half of Pom’s large family run Thai restaurants, and Pom jokingly calls herself the black sheep of the family because she alone has opened establishments that veer away from classic Thai cooking.
Chalk that up to spending much of the 1990s in the New York restaurant scene. (Pom today appears utterly ageless, but is in fact 41 years old.) She trained there as a pastry chef and upon graduation scored an externship that many culinary students would die for, at the legendary Nobu. (When I remark that this must have been an incredibly competitive position to land, the ever-modest Pom demurs by noting that Nobu did not make its name in sweets.) She picked Nobu, she says, because they promised that she would have the chance to cook more than dessert. Going on 20 years later, she’s still appreciative of the knowledge of Japanese herbs and vegetables she gleaned there.
New York proved to be a broadening experience in many ways. The city had few Thai restaurants in those days, and so Pom was quickly immersed in flavors and ingredients outside of her comfort zone. Though she says the Thai flavor profiles she grew up with are still her “core base” and foundation, time spent working in a French restaurant and a pan-Asian restaurant in the city broadened her horizons.
So did the cultural experiences she had there. The French restaurant Pom worked at in New York was not just any French restaurant. It was the East Village’s bondage-themed La Nouvelle Justine, where entrees came with a side of haricots verts and some light flogging. And the pan-Asian place was none other than the pioneering drag-entertainment emporium Lucky Cheng’s—all heady stuff for the 20-something girl from Central Florida.
As exciting and professionally rewarding as the Big Apple was, by 2001 Pom was missing having family around, and she moved back to Orlando, where most of them were still based. The transition wasn’t without trial–when she first opened the Sandwicheria nine years ago, she tells me, she had people walk out on her watercress and Brie sandwiches because they didn’t have American cheese. But she hasn’t looked back. In fact, when I ask if there are any other cities she could see herself living in, New York is conspicuously not on the list. (San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, and Chicago are.)
Possibly Pom doesn’t miss the Big City as much as she might because she has fostered as much edge and culture as possible in her restaurants. Local art adorns the walls at both places, and Pom herself, who has a tendency to dye her hair in fanciful ways, seems drawn to creative types. She estimates that 85% of her employees are either artists, entertainers, or musicians. She notes that it can be hard for the tattooed demographic to find day jobs, but at Pom’s, that’s all a plus.
Mostly, though, Pom just loves Orlando. “It’s an amazing city,” she enthuses, ticking off a list of what she loves about the place, including the people, the scenery, museums, the growing popularity of farmers’ markets, and—perhaps not surprising, considering the years she spent in the northeast—the weather.
Best of all, says Pom, the art and food scene have come a long way in the years since she came back to Orlando, a circumstance that she attributes to the fact that the population of the City Beautiful is both young and growing fast. The newcomers, she explains, bring an appreciation for other cultures and eating traditions. The crowds that balked at French cheese and watercress less than a decade ago now gobble up paneer and kimchee without blinking. And as became clear the day that order for turkey sandwiches came in from Seattle, the rest of the country is starting to take notice.
I ask her if she had an inkling, nine years ago, when she opened her first Orlando shop with 12 sandwiches on the menu, that she would one day preside over a funky, cross-cultural mini restaurant empire where the offbeat flavors of the world mingle freely (and the offbeat people, too).
“I never thought this was going to happen,” she replies. “I’m blown away every day I wake up. I’m just like…’Wow!’” she says.
I note that is sounds like she’s doing what she loves, and although it’s not really a question, she replies anyway, without hesitation.
“Yes, every day.”
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