“I would like to order some sweeeeeeet Panda.”
Noi Chaisri laughs mightily as she recalls the story of the late-night phone call that inspired the name of her new business, Sweet Panda Asian Market, opening this summer at 114 S. 23rd St. in the South Side. It will be right next door to Thai Me Up, the neighborhood eatery she also owns.
Her cousin took the call a few weeks back. A prank caller rang the restaurant and, in an affected tone, placed a faux order.
Chaisri thought it was hilarious, and hey, wouldn’t that make a great name for the market she was opening next door?
Thai Me Up first opened in the South Side on East Carson St. in 2003 and moved to its present location on S. 23rd St. in 2013. When the gym next door moved out, Chaisri rented the space for storage and prep: There’s not much of a pantry where they are now, which means her sister has to travel across town to the Strip District every other day for provisions.
“She goes to the Strip at 8 a.m. By the time she gets back it’s 10, 10:30, and we open for lunch at 11. It makes for a packed morning.”
Chaisri says it’s common for guests at Thai Me Up to ask where they can buy a particular ingredient used in their cooking, and until now, she would send them across town. It didn’t take long for her to decide that it made more sense to open her new storage space to the public as a market.
Sweet Panda will stock mostly Thai products alongside some Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino fare. Expect to find fresh lemongrass and basil alongside specialty soy sauces, purple yams, vegan tofu and other hard-to-find items.
Sweet Panda will also sell prepared meals, “like an Asian version of GetGo,” laughs Chaisri. They’ll open early so customers can pick up Thai beef jerky with sticky rice for breakfast, or snag some ginger chicken for supper on the way home. They’re also thinking of offering some curries that aren’t on the menu next door.
Chaisri came to Pittsburgh in 1996 to study at Point Park University. Previously she worked as a reporter in Thailand and spent time covering the political upheaval in neighboring Cambodia in the ’90s.
She calls the South Side “a charming area” and says that it was the first neighborhood she fell in love with when she came to town. There will be a large community bulletin board in the front of the store, and she welcomes input from her neighbors on what they would like to see the market carry.
“If people want to give us advice or suggestions, even if it’s salt for snow, I will find it.”
Anything, that is, except for Panda.