Little Uncle took on many forms before it became the Thai take-out restaurant in Capitol Hill. Its chef and co-owner, Wiley Frank (formerly of Licorous, Lark, and other restaurants around town), made similar transitions along the way. Frank and his wife and co-owner Poncharee Kounpungchart ("PK") embarked on parenthood while developing their new venture Little Uncle, formerly called "Shophouse." Little Uncle evolved from a stand at the Columbia City farmers market to Monday night pop ups at Licorous and La Bête, before the term "pop-ups" invaded the local food scene. The business that eventually became the Franks' current take-out restaurant took on family recipes, a family member's nickname, and was developed to suit their family schedule, becoming what we can call a real "mom-and-pop" or better yet, just Little Uncle.
Photo by Poncharee Kounpungchart (left to right) Wiley Frank and Poncharee Kounpungchart ("PK")
Frank: I had been working at restaurants for a while, mostly French influences or Mediterranean influences. Culinary schools were mostly within the French tradition. So I left those traditions behind me. When you're working in restaurants, a lot of the food starts to look a little homogenous so I was trying to figure out how to differentiate myself a little, or just get into something new. My wife suggested that we look at Thai food.
We made a few trips [to Thailand] and during our last trip, kind of an extended trip, we were trying to think of ways to bring it back. We didn't really have the funds to open a restaurant so John [Sundstrom], also the chef at Lark, offered for us a chance to do this at Licorous. We did it from there, and have been doing little steps since then.
Why did you decide to change the name from Shophouse to Little Uncle?
We were Shophouse while we were at Licorous and partly through when we were at the [Columbia City] farmers market. We started doing another Monday night at La Bête. During that time was when we decided to make the change. That was when Chipotle, the national fast food chain, was starting a South East Asian fast food chain. We had some lawyerly conversations and we decided to do a change. It's kind of funny because the reason we chose "Shophouse" was because it represented this sort of small mom-and-pop restaurant where you have a few choices of food at that restaurant, but now I guess it's just a national chain. We decided to just go a little more personal with Little Uncle. In Thai culture, everyone knows each other by their nicknames. People don't really know each other by their formal names. PK's father was called, lung lek, which means "little uncle."
Did a lot of the dishes come from PK, and did you have other help in developing the dishes?
She definitely had a few dishes down for sure already. We hit up every auntie or grandma or uncle. Everyone has their own dish that they have down. We also visited a lot of restaurants to figure out what makes those dishes so good. A lot of trial and error and a lot of family and friends showing us what they think is the best way to make a certain dish.
How have the two of you been able to juggle your family life with being in the restaurant industry?
Well, that's what's nice about what we have now is that it's not a traditional restaurant. We're open from 11am to 8pm. We're not there to midnight every night and it's small enough that we can make it work for us. We can hire people, and one of us always gets a night off usually.
We're certainly open to looking into a bigger space, with a bigger kitchen and 20 seats in the dining room that is actually enclosed, but we're willing to wait for that perfect opportunity to come. I'm not looking forward to being insanely in debt, nor am I looking to work insane hours for the next ten years of my life. That is the time that I really want to spend with my children.
How did you and PK meet?
Actually, this June, we'll be married for 10 years. We met at the art school at the University of Washington. I was doing an art opening, I was doing some sculptures and we were at a bar on the Ave called, "Flowers," and Wednesday nights were $1 tequila night.
And how did you transition from art school to cooking?
Well, my mom is a poet and my dad is a geologist. So that's kind of a combination of art and science. Cooking is a combination of the two, I would say. I think at the art school, where I went, you kind of learn to be an artist. You learn to have the lifestyle, doing what you believe in and trying not to compromise, I guess. I just kind of applied that to the field of cooking. Other than that, I haven't had time to start working on a canvas or welding anything together. Though, I am welding or constructing things for the restaurant.
What has been a dish that you haven't yet been able to recreate?
One dish I'd really like to bring back is called yam pla-duk fu. It's basically like a salad. I've heard of so many different ways to make it, but it's sort of like, you pound the fish and it gets really fluffy and you fry it and serve it with a sour mango sauce that goes on. The fish gets kind of crispy, but it's like a crispy cloud. When you eat it, it's crispy, juicy, and just really good. You're supposed to use a river fish, I guess, we can't really get that fish. If there's a good fish we can use, then yeah, that'd be nice.