Pam and Justin Fong, Jasmine's owners, are both of Chinese descent but were raised in Thailand. When the Fongs moved to Memphis in 1983 to join family, Pam and Justin got their start working in other people's restaurants while they raised their three young children: Anna, Nick, and Cindy.
In 1990, the Fongs were ready to open their own restaurant and rented a space in a small strip mall on Covington Pike in Bartlett. Jasmine quickly became a popular spot for Chinese food, and the Fongs began building relationships with their customers. Anna says, "Our customers became our friends and viewed us as their own kids. It really shaped who we are. Our teachers would come eat and tell my parents about our grades. My sister even got an internship from a customer."
At their customers' bidding, Jasmine introduced a Thai menu in 1994 and a vegetarian menu soon after. The Fongs refer to these early vegetarian customers as their "founding fathers." When Justin started preparing dishes with no dairy products or fish sauce, he lost weight, lowered his blood pressure, and felt healthier while still getting to eat the things he loved. He then made it Jasmine's mission to prepare healthy and creative dishes using fresh ingredients.
News of Jasmine's Thai and vegetarian menus spread quickly, and the Fongs found that the majority of their customers were driving from Midtown. In 2003, when it was time to renew their lease in Bartlett, the Fongs decided to move the restaurant closer to their customers. To the delight of many Midtowners, they purchased a small house on Cooper Street next to Tsunami in the heart of the Cooper-Young business district.
The new location on Cooper has allowed Justin to experiment more, and he is constantly adding new things to the menu -- most recently, lemon-grass tofu and Thai pepper basil. "Each time my dad adds something to the menu," Anna says, "we think, What are we going to take off? We never end up taking anything off, because we think of certain customers who would be mad if we [did]."
Among those favorite dishes: green-curry tofu, crispy bean curd and fried vegetables with garlic sauce, crispy orange bean curd, and yum tofu. The yum tofu is the perfect combination of hot and sour, featuring flame-broiled tofu, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, white and green onions, peanuts, cilantro, garlic, and red pepper in a light lemon and soy sauce.
Jasmine also offers a delicious dessert that is hard to find anywhere else in Memphis: mango and sticky rice. Jasmine has fresh, plump mangoes delivered from Houston and serves them alongside special long-grain Thai sticky rice that is mixed with coconut milk to form a custard.
Justin is the main chef, but Pam assists with appetizers and desserts. (They have a long-standing argument over who makes the best peanut sauce.) Pam takes all of the orders and delivers all of the food. Customers come for the food and for the company.
"My mom has more friends than anyone I know," Anna says. "A lot of customers call the restaurant 'Ms. Pam's.' After a bad day at school, my friends go and talk to my mom. She'll talk about anything." Pam often greets customers by their first names, asks about their families, and can often be seen happily carrying babies around while grateful parents enjoy their meals.
The Fong children are grown now and have careers of their own. Anna, 28, is studying to be a pharmacist, Nick, 26, is a dentist, and Cindy, 24, is completing an MBA. All three still help out in the restaurant when they can. "I have two lives. People always think I look familiar when I'm at the pharmacy," says Anna. "Working at the restaurant is my daily bread and my daily meal!"
But those days could be numbered. Justin likes to remind everyone that he plans on retiring in two to three years, and despite the positive experience they say they had growing up in the restaurant, the Fong children have no interest in taking over. Pam says Justin may give his recipes to a nephew, but Anna adds that her dad doesn't use measuring spoons, so they really need to find someone to come in and make the recipes their own. "We want someone to use our recipes for good and not evil. We don't want to be like [a big chain restaurant]. We want our product to stay small," she says.
Perhaps Jasmine's customers, the ones who were so instrumental in changing Jasmine's menu a dozen years ago, can change Justin's mind and convince him to stay in the kitchen a while longer.
Jasmine is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Jasmine Thai and Vegetarian Restaurant 916 South Cooper (725-0223)