By Cameron Lee
November 14, 2019
The term “fusion” has been thrown around in burgeoning cities across the country for quite a while now, especially when referring to Asian-style restaurants or dishes. Chefs and restaurant chains take classic staples of cultural cuisines and remake them for the American palate, often losing the heritage and essence of the dish. The fusion trend has died down quite a bit in popular food culture (for good reason), giving rise to more original takes on Asian cuisine. Emerging from that, Hibiscus is an unexpected place in Charlotte that delivers authentic Thai, Laotian, and Korean dishes whose roots are derived from one of the first Asian restaurants in the city.
Roger Kongkham is the son of Chienthong Kongkham. Born at Presbyterian Hospital and raised in west Charlotte, Roger’s mom was one of the original owners of Thai Taste, a Charlotte staple since 1988. Growing up in the city and in the restaurant business, Kongkham has a vast understanding of how much the city has changed over the years. “You’re starting to see more spreading out because Charlotte is such a huge metropolis and everyone is starting to move outwards,” he said. “Only affordable housing left in the city is probably closer into west Charlotte. You’re finally starting to see more growth and reinvestment into those neighborhoods.”
Traveling to Seattle frequently as a kid to spend time with his grandparents, Kongkham’s childhood was a little different than most. He started working in the restaurant at ten years old: “I was the only one in middle school who, right after soccer practice, I had to go to work.” Bussing tables, washing dishes and tending to the soups, he was intrigued by the restaurant business, but his mind was more focused on skateboarding and music at the time.
At West Mecklenburg High School, Kongkham was involved in many activities, including the Anime and Japanese Club and his role as President of the Drama Club. His goals had nothing to do with the restaurant industry when he headed to college at UNCC. “I was really into cars and I also wanted to go international because I studied Japanese all throughout high school. I just wanted to do anything I could do to get out of the restaurant business,” he said.
Like most Asian kids who leave home for college, he started to appreciate the food culture he grew up with a lot more while in school and away from home. Contemplating multiple majors at UNCC, while developing a growing passion for mixology, Kongkham settled on a double major in Japanese and International Studies with a focus on Asian religions.
After spending some time after college traveling and contemplating the next moves, his passion for food started to resurface. He began to realize his restaurant industry background and appreciation for food had come full circle. In June of 2016, Kongkham opened his first restaurant, Hibiscus, with his brother Robert. Originally specializing in Thai cuisine, sushi, and some signature Korean dishes, he rebranded the menu in March of 2019 to add traditional Laotian cuisine. “Representing who you are, and what you are about, no matter what platform you use, just being able to carry out your message. It started with the food but it kind of ended up being more about representing your culture,” he said.
Now serving up classic Lao dishes like nam khao (a scrumptious crispy rice dish served with lettuce), larb (minced meat salad), beef noodle soup, papaya salad, and sticky rice, they also serve classic Korean staples. With bibimbap, bulgogi, galbi and the storied Korean army stew, budae-jjigae, the restaurant is a true fusion of authentic Asian dishes. Tucked down below the Parktowne Village shopping center off Park Road, you wouldn’t expect to find such time-honored traditional Asian fare. This isn’t hasty, quick-and-easy Americanized ethnic cuisine; this is years’ worth of food heritage presented in modern day fashion. Chef and restaurant partner, Savannah Rathsasomboth, and mom Sisophone head the kitchen occupied by a classically-trained Lao and Thai staff.
From traditional Thai curries with beef, shrimp, duck and vegetarian options, to the long-established pad thai that derives from the family flagship Thai Taste, there’s a hearty selection to choose from at Hibiscus. A personal favorite is the mango sticky rice. The sweet but peculiarly savory coconut-flavored rice accompanied by a full mango over the top is a hybrid dessert, but also a cultural standard that can be eaten with nearly anything.
The restaurant is snug so seating is limited, but spacious enough to craft high-quality mixed drinks with a full bar. Kongkham’s passion is concocting craft cocktails with ingredients, flavors, and liquors that are native to Southeast Asia. The popular “Smooth Thai Criminal” incorporates thai tea with a pomegranate liqueur, while the aptly titled “Morning on the Mekong” fuses a distinct coffee originating from the French colonization of Laos. “I just want to be able to provide the best experience I can to guests and educate people on our backgrounds and cultures,” he said.
The roots of hibiscus plants– which have a cultural importance for several Asian countries– always grow wide and, even though Hibiscus the restaurant is located in an ever-evolving area of a budding metropolis, the roots run deep with the origins of Asian cuisine in Charlotte.
1600 East Woodlawn Rd. #150
Charlotte, NC 28209