Asian Grill Feeds Local Appetite

By MEGAN JAE RIGGS

A light sizzle permeates the air as he gently tosses the vegetables around the wok with a ladle. It’s not the kind of sizzle that causes alarm or makes one rush to the stove but more of a comforting, aromatic, intoxicating sizzle- the kind that puts your senses at ease.

He arranges the veggies using a single chopstick to ensure no stray pieces are left behind as he herds the contents of the wok onto a single white plate. He meditatively prepares the rice making a perfect mound along side the steaming, glistening vegetables.

This isn’t Thom Pak’s first rodeo. As the owner and chef of River Wok Asian Grill, he’s cooked quite a few meals and he loves it.

“People do it for a job, I do it for a hobby.” Thom said.

River Wok Grill owner Thom Pak

Thom Pak is the owner and chef of River Wok Asian Grill. He enjoys cooking for his regular customers. Photo by Megan JaeRiggs.

Thom’s MBA degree and retail management job weren’t cutting it anymore so he decided to open a restaurant in 2005 where he could have a peaceful, stress-free existence. He says he enjoys talking with regulars and seeing people enjoy his cooking.

Thom is the head chef of his restaurant as well as his home, cooking for his family who had a great deal of influence as he was developing the menu. Bitty, his youngest daughter follows a vegan diet and abstains from animal products. He wanted to open a restaurant where she could eat fresh, healthy options and not have to worry about animal cross-contamination.

“He knew if it wasn’t vegan I wouldn’t eat it,” Bitty said. “Making a delicious menu that is almost completely vegan friendly just makes sense. So many restaurants don’t have vegan options, or even an honest vegetarian dish on their menu. With a non-restrictive menu like my dad’s, everyone loves it. Meat lovers and veggie lovers alike.” Unlike much Asian cuisine, Thom uses no MSG, fish oils or chicken stock in his sauces or rice. River Wok was voted Missoula’s choice vegetarian dish in 2008 and 2009.

While some restaurants use frozen, pre-packaged food, Thom prides himself on his fresh ingredients, such as the noodles he has shipped from Seattle weekly. River Wok offers a variety of Asian cuisine that range from noodle and rice dishes, to soups and salads. Thom’s Dim Sum, or appetizer menu, features dumplings, pot stickers, spring rolls and sticky rice- a vegan appetizer that is a mixture of mushrooms, tofu and carrots in a vegetable sauce cooked in rice and wrapped in a lotus leaf, a process that usually takes a few days. There are several gluten free and vegan options as well.

Soup

Vegetable soup made from scratch with tofu and noodles. Photo by Megan Jae Riggs viaInstagram.

“He does everything himself and that should be worth something.” Thom’s wife Jennie said in response to a customer’s complaint of prices. “It’s time consuming,” she said, “what should his time be worth?”

Jennie, who helps at the restaurant during the week, says Thom works roughly 13 hours a day and usually does prep work or shopping on his day off. Jennie explained that Thom does 99.9 percent of the work himself-chopping veggies, making marinades from scratch, pressing and baking the tofu and preparing all the food.

Sticky Rice

Sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf. Thom recommends eating them unwrapped with a splash of soy sauce. Photo by Megan Jae Riggs viaInstagram.

All of Thom’s dishes have specific sauces and noodles, and they are customizable and made to order. His kitchen is an open, stainless steel setup located in the front of the restaurant where the woks, sauces and spices live- there’s even a front row table. Thom’s culinary techniques are on display for customers with every dish he makes.

Thom and Jennie just returned from a trip to Hong Kong where Jennie described a waiter practically tossing her plate on the table carelessly like a Frisbee, she was taken back by it.

“When people come in here we care about them,” Jennie said.

Vegetarian stirfry with white rice. Photo by Megan JaeRiggs.

A man walks through the door looking around adjusting to the new surroundings- it’s apparent he’s new to River Wok. Thom casually turns around welcoming him with a quick smile and tells him to take a seat wherever, motioning his hands around the space full of black tables and chairs. Thom focuses his concentration and continues preparing by picking each vegetable by hand and scooping them into a stainless steel bowl to be added to the wok. Another customer walks in asking him about his trip, he chats with the customer for a few minutes then takes her order. Everyone that walks through the door seems to be a regular with a vested interest in Thom’s life as well as his cooking. It’s clear he’s established relationships with his customers, even bringing them souvenirs from his vacation.

“I don’t advertise because it’s meant to be a local hole-in-the-wall place for regular customers only,” Pak said.

John Torma, a regular known by the Pak’s as “Hot Surprise John,” says he frequents River Wok as often as he can and doesn’t care what Thom cooks for him as long as it’s very hot.

“The best thing on the menu isn’t on the menu,” said Torma, “ I trust Thom’s culinary instinct and I literally have never been disappointed.”

River Wok is located at 624 East Broadway. For the menu, hours or more information, visit the River Wok Asian Grill website.

*********************

Megan Jae Riggs is a freelance visual journalist living in Missoula, Montana. She’s a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism and enjoys green smoothies, riding her beach cruiser and Montana sunsets. She can be reached at meganjaeriggsphotography.com