It’s been long journey for my friend Sap, the owner of Saps’s Fine Thai Cuisine with locations on Westgate and Burnet. I would attempt to give you his last name but I can’t even spell it let alone pronounce it.
He came from Bangkok to Texas in his late teens and in 1972 enrolled at UT to study Chemical Engineering. Yes, you read that correctly. He had no grants and no money so he literally earned his way through school by working at Kash n’ Karry, then on Guadalupe. He graduated in 1978 but was unable to land the job he wanted in his chosen field. They told him his GPA was too low but I suspect there was bias at work.
But then luck intervened. He had so impressed the owners at Kash n’ Karry during his time at UT they offered him the manager’s job of their new store. So in 1979 he took a new direction.
In talking about his career Sap always emphasizes how much he’s always learned from listening to his customers, colleagues, friends and mentors. He lived with some Thai friends in those days and did the cooking. I assumed he arrived from Thailand with a vast array of knowledge of the cuisine. But that was not the case. He had some basic knowledge but for everything else he consulted Thai cookbooks. And his cooking skills evolved.
After making his mark by helping Kash n’ Karry triple their profits Sap was recruited in 1987 by Dr. Foo Swasdee who had opened Satay on W. Anderson. Sap worked hand in hand with Foo for several years and then was lured back to Kash n’ Karry by a lucrative offer. He stayed until 1993 when the head of the group reneged on his original offer. The two wound up in court and ultimately a settlement offer was made. But for Sap it was not just about the money. He wanted the jury to deliver a verdict and after the trial they did. He received what he considered a fair amount and the owner was found guilty for fraud.
In 1993 he went back to work with Foo for seven more years. During this time he perfected his culinary skills and his knowledge of each of the four regions of Thai cuisine. He began to correspond with a girl he’d dated in high school who had lost her husband. She had also pursued a career in food.
In 2000 Sap brought Mam to the U.S. and they married. The original Madam Mam’s opened on Guadalupe across from UT in 2000. The lease holder was so impressed with Sap and his references that he extended the lease from 1 to 9 years! This helped the couple open and it was an immediate hit, particularly with students. Sap’s mantra was to serve the best Thai food, deliver it quickly, make it affordable, and perhaps most importantly, make it healthy. Another Mam’s opened on Westgate in 2005 and a third in 2009 on Anderson. But as the restaurants prospered, Sap and Mam’s marriage floundered and they divorced in 2011.
Sap took the Westgate restaurant in the settlement and rebranded it as a Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine. He opened a second Sap’s in the HEB shopping center in 2014 remarried a girl who had worked at the restaurant and soon became a first time dad of twins.
He’s a remarkable man. Honorable, and self effacing, always eager to listen and learn and now a terrific dad so I’m told. There are not many business people around like Sap. It’s been a pleasure to enjoy his innovative cuisine and most, to consider him a friend.