(Editor’s note: This is one of many stories featured in the March 27, 2022 issue of The Stanly News & Press, which included a special section titled Spirit of Stanly.)
For nearly two decades, Ly Cuisine in Albemarle has been about more than just good food.
It’s a place where customers turn into friends and friends turn into family; a place where different cultures can be shared and enjoyed; and a place that has been a mainstay of the community for so many over the years.
“My regulars will tell you that when they come to eat at the restaurant here and when they eat my cuisine, they feel like they’re at my house,” says owner Zoua Ly. “And I think, for me, that’s a big compliment.”
Having always loved cooking, Ly decided to change careers in the early 2000s. She worked in the hotel industry but wanted to try her luck by opening her own restaurant.
It was not an easy decision, as she had no professional cooking experience, but she wanted to follow her passion and introduce the community to Asian flavors, especially Thai cuisine.
“It was very intimidating,” she said. “When I had the idea and talked to Nhia (her husband) about it, he was like, ‘Well, are you sure you want to do this?’ and I said, ‘Well, what can be so hard about it? It’s just cooking and using the skills I already have to serve the public.’
After months of research and discussion with a hundred people about the prospect of a Thai restaurant, she opened Ly Cuisine in January 2005 on North Second Street near the hospital. The business was located in a building owned by Ly’s father-in-law, Xang Ly, who operated an Asian market in the space.
The restaurant was quite a revolutionary venture considering there were only a handful of Asian restaurants at the time, none of which served Thai cuisine.
Word spread quickly about the opening, so much so that queues regularly formed outside to enter.
“We were very busy,” Nhia said.
Over the years, as Ly Cuisine grew in popularity, Ly adapted her menu as needed to include a variety of Asian flavors and dishes, including showcasing her family’s Hmong roots. She and her husband Nhia are from Laos, a Southeast Asian country bordering Thailand and Vietnam.
“When we started it was strictly a Thai restaurant, but over the years as we grew in our knowledge of restaurant management, we mixed it up – it’s more of a Asian fusion you can tell right now,” Nhia said.
Although the menu is quite extensive, some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes include classics such as pad thai, curry noodles and spring rolls, as well as others like scorpion chicken and Thai-style steak. , which is only offered on Friday and Saturday.
“We’ve had customers tell us that we had hands down one of the best steaks compared to other expensive steak restaurants,” Ly said.
As Ly got to know many of her loyal customers, some of whom drop by at least once a week, she learned to customize dishes to their liking. Several items on the menu, like Cody’s Chicken, which is sliced chicken sautéed in oysters and teriyaki sauce, are named after customers who first suggested the idea.
“I’m in the relationship business and it’s relationships through my cooking,” Ly said. “Over the years I’ve gotten to know my customers and gotten feedback from them and what they would like. A lot of my cooking styles and dishes are really influenced by my customers.
One of Ly Cuisine’s most high-profile customers over the years has been Kellie Pickler, who frequented the restaurant regularly before finding success on “American Idol.” Even after rising to fame, Pickler would call ahead to schedule private dinner parties whenever she was in town. To this day, Picker occasionally messages the family on Facebook, Ly said, “just to see how we’re doing.”
The restaurant has earned a reputation for authentic Asian cuisine that extends beyond the borders of Stanly County. People from all over the country, including relatives of Ly’s in California and parts of the Midwest, came to enjoy the flavors offered by Ly and his staff.
“We’re a small restaurant in a small town, but someone from California or New York knows us,” Ly said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
In cultivating relationships with so many clients, many of whom now refer to his “family”, several defining moments come to mind. Ly recalls talking with an elderly woman who had avoided ethnic cuisine for most of her life before her daughter convinced her to eat at Ly Cuisine.
“She said, ‘Zoua, I’m so glad my daughter encouraged me to try your food. Because if my daughter hadn’t, I never would have known what I had been missing all those years,” Ly recalled.
After the woman passed away, who became a regular customer, her daughter told Ly what the restaurant had meant to her mother.
“Thank you for cooking for my parents,” Ly said, the girl told her. “You don’t know the joy you gave them.”
It’s those kinds of special, intimate moments that Ly says she cherishes the most.
“When clients tell me that, it’s my legacy. I’m grateful.