Braden and Yasmin Wages have been married three years. That means that during their newlywed phase they were busy planning and putting together a restaurant -- one of the most challenging business ventures to tackle. And yet they're still smiling.
After two months of soft opening and a grand opening celebration in March 2011, the couple made it through the first full year of business as restaurant owners. There were some small issues: For one, Malai Kitchen is nestled into West Village, which is awesome for tenants and strolling shoppers, but might make the Thai-Vietnamese fusion eatery a hard discovery for those headed to the Magnolia Theatre or some other destination. But despite the location, the Wages have had a steady increase of regulars and those with dietary restrictions looking for satisfying options.
Now that the modern and airy restaurant has found a niche in the gluten-free and vegetarian crowds, the Wages can finally take a day off.
Since your grand opening last March, has your concept changed?
Braden Wages: Not dramatically. I think we've expanded things on our menu, we've expanded into brunch, we've expanded into happy hour. And I guess we've grown up a little bit, but the vision of the restaurant hasn't really changed. When we opened we wanted to be what we are today.
Coming into this space, did you actually visualize what you ended up having?
BW: We wanted to be a different restaurant than what was here already in West Village, and I think it's taken people a little while to realize what we're all about. I think people are starting to get it a lot more and that really helps.
Is it the fusion of Vietnamese and Thai that confuses people?
Yasmin Wages: Yeah, I think. Our idea was to elevate Southeast Asian cuisine and offer a full dining experience with that cuisine. And I think that before us, it was always a neighborhood kind of "take it home and eat it out of a box" kind of mentality with it. So people didn't really know what to expect when they came in and it was kind of shocking.
Visually, it does present more upscale than take-out, but it's still accessible.
BW: We don't want to be an upscale restaurant. We still want to be casual and appropriate for any time of day any day.
With your West Village-friendly Dinner and a Movie deal, how does that pose a challenge in terms of people wanting to eat quickly to make a specific show time?
BW: We can be very fast because everything we cook is high-heat, everything cooks very quickly and speed of service is never really an issue.
YW: Yeah, we've never really had an issue with that. It's always really easy for us to accommodate people who have timing issues or people who have dietary issue. Our menu is phenomenally flexible. I think that's been something people are finding out more and more and are really starting to appreciate. Whether it's vegetarian or gluten or shrimp - any specifics.
This type of cooking lends itself to accommodating those needs, removing ingredients, without compromising your vision too much, right?
BW: There are two parts to that. One is that we didn't realize when we opened how many vegetarians and vegans really look to Asian cuisine, especially Southeast Asian, because it's not protein-centric. It's very easy to find something on our menu, so we find ourselves catering to a high percentage of, compared to other restaurants, vegans or gluten allergy.
I assume that's steadily increased since you opened.
BW: Well, we learned about it and then we've been able to expand our offering. Our whole menu is gluten-free. That's huge for somebody with such a restriction and we've expanded to cater to vegetarians.
The other part is the knowledge of our staff. We really try to make sure our staff know what's in everything and how to really adapt the experience to different people. That was one of the things we wanted to do to set ourselves apart. It's really paid off for us.
What about décor and design? Have you needed to modify anything over the course of the year?
YW: We enclosed the patio for winter. Our patio is now fully enclosed and we have a central heating unit that we use to heat it. But it looks like you wouldn't think it's enclosed. Even when you're sitting out there you still feel like you're out in the open. I think that's been one of the biggest design changes.
BW: We've removed some tables actually, to make it easier for our kitchen to keep up, because it's a big restaurant. It's a lot with the patio.
YW: With the patio, it's a really big restaurant.
BW: We've removed like eight tables since we opened which has really helped the restaurant feel a lot better.
Do you have regulars?
YW: We do. We have a phenomenal number of regulars and it's awesome to see. And they've become part of the restaurant and they always ask about things and they know all the staff. The staff knows them. Usually, they don't even have to ask for anything we just know what they want and get it. That's a lot of fun.
BW: I would say almost fifty percent of our guests are regulars at this point. Frequent - more than once a week - people. And that's the goldmine of our restaurant.
When things like the Dallas Independent Film Festival come into the Magnolia, do you feel like it opens up your exposure? Do people come back after those events?
BW: Not that we've noticed in a big way. We contributed to the Asian Film Festival last year and that was actually really good because there's a strong correlation with that crowd and people who would appreciate our restaurant.
YW: We were still pretty young for the Dallas Film Festival last year, so we didn't have a lot of interaction. But any time we can do events here that will increase our exposure, we do them. And we have an awesome happy hour, actually.
Yeah, with so many standard margarita and wine places, this would be a decidedly different option.
YW: Yeah! And we offer really great value both during happy hour and outside of happy hour which is the other thing that people don't expect when they come here. They don't have to spend an arm and a leg just to have good food.
How does it feel coming out of the first year?
YW: It definitely feels better. The first year, I'm not gonna lie, it was really hard. And everyone said it would be hard we knew it would be hard, but it was really hard. [Laughs] The second year has been a lot more fun.
BW: The second year we're a lot more comfortable and have a lot more momentum.
So you can take a breath?
BW: Yeah, exactly. It's nice to have the ball rolling at this point. We're still continuing to tweak the menu. We're still trying to do more things to get involved in the community.
Are you still here every day?
BW: We have one day off.
YW: We take one day off a week, together.
That had to have started late in the year.
BW: That started last week. [both laugh] The one day off together a week started last week.
YW: Halfway through the first year we started taking a day off.
BW: But we'd be separated. We couldn't both be gone. I liken it to having a child. Someone has to be involved all the time and it kinda dictates how you live your life.
Do you eat here?
YW: We do, all the time. We find the more we eat here the more we get the guest experience and we can tweak and adjust accordingly.
BW: Our staff eats here every day. On their day off they'll come in. It's a bit ... exhausting! [laughs]
YW: Most of our front of house staff has been with us since the beginning so it's been exciting for them. They stuck with us when it was not great and now they're able to reap the benefits of it picking up. We've become more or less a family and so it's their kitchen as much as it is ours.