Maile Symmonds

Jo McGarry photo

Where were you born and raised? I was born in Laos, but came to Hawaii when I was 2 years old, so raised here.

You grew up in a very famous restaurant family – among your aunties and cousins and parents, your family owns some of the most popular restaurants in town: Paesano, Assaggio, Mekong … your Uncle Keo owns a famous restaurant. It’s quite a restaurant dynasty. (laughs) Yes, it really is, and all of them are hard, hard workers.

Was it inevitable that you would become a restaurant owner? No, there was never any pressure to go into the industry, even though I started work at Mekong when I was in high school and ran Assaggio’s when I was very young. I worked out of the industry on the Mainland for a while to try different things.

But there’s something about the restaurant industry that gets into your blood, I think. Yes! And I was so homesick. I wanted to come back to Hawaii so badly that, when the opportunity came up to open Assaggio at Hawaii Kai, I took it and ran with it.

You have never been afraid of bringing new flavors to your menu. For example, a tomato and mozzarella salad is drizzled with your personal Thai dressing – not traditional in any way. Yes, there’s this big misconception about Thai food being too spicy or too coconutty, so my goal is to show people how good our food is by having contemporary dishes on the menu that they recognize – steak, salads, and we have a chow fun noodle dish that kids love.

Your bruschetta is as good as any I’ve ever eaten. It’s absolutely fabulous. A little sweet, lots of tomatoes, a spicy balsamic drizzle, basil – and the bread is fantastically crisp. Thank you! We call it Thai-schetta because of the Thai basil.

Do you have time to eat out? Finally, this year I can. For the past 10 years I’ve been so busy, so now that I can go out to eat, I love to find the best hole-in-the-wall type restaurants. I love pho; I like duck soup, noodles … simple food.

You take a serious approach to customer complaints. You are incredibly gracious with irritated people. A lot of the time restaurant owners/staff get defensive when things aren’t going well. I make a point of just listening and making sure we hear what the customers are saying. Sometimes what they’re angry about isn’t really anything to do with us. It makes us all feel good when the guests leave happy.

Maile’s Thai Bistro, 333 Keahole St. # 2B8, 394-2488