© 2024. Randolph Hub. All Rights Reserved.


Behind parents Sothear Long and Ahmeng Lau are sons Vanny and Justin Lau, who have stayed to help out through COVID and post-COVID struggles rather than pursue other opportunities.      Larry Penkava/Randolph Hub

‘I couldn’t talk about it for a long time’

ASHEBORO — Taste of Asia opened 25 years ago this month. While the restaurant has struggled since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a far cry from owner Sothear Long’s life in Cambodia.


She grew up there, the 13th of 18 siblings. Her father was a top general in the army and right-hand man to the king. So, her large family was well-off until the bloody Khmer Rouge took over the government in 1975.


Long said her father was killed in front of her and other family members. 


“I couldn’t talk about it for a long time,” she said. “I had nightmares.”


After her father’s death, her mother tried to take the family to Thailand but was caught, imprisoned and tortured. During that time, three of Long’s brothers were killed.


The remaining siblings split up and escaped to an older sister’s home. Finally, seven of them went to get their mother and found that she had given birth to a child while in captivity. Another son, aged 3, was killed when he cried out for food.


The siblings found their mother in a cage, freed her and ran. They had to change their last name and tell anyone who asked that their parents were farmers. After three more years, they escaped to Thailand, where representatives of the United Nations helped them.


For three years, Long said, she learned to cook. “I was 12 years old,” she said. “I volunteered to take care of children with no parents. I was working with Americans.”


The Lutheran Church helped seven of the family members, including their mother, come to Greensboro in 1981. Long went to high school there and attended Guilford College to study English. She became an ESL (English as a second language) teacher.


Meanwhile, Ahmeng Lau, who grew up in Singapore, had an uncle who owned Bamboo Garden in Asheboro. “He brought me here to work in the restaurant,” Lau said.


Long and Lau met in Asheboro. They were married in 1985 and Long began helping at Bamboo Garden.


With restauranteering now in her blood, Long opened several Asian eateries in Thomasville, High Point and Greensboro. But she stopped working for five years to raise her son Justin. Then she had Vanny, her second son.


“I wanted to open a Thai-Cambodian restaurant,” she said. That happened in 1999 at 127 Taft Ave. in the Hillside Shopping Center. The restaurant specializes in authentic Thai and Cambodian dishes.


“We had a lot of regular customers,” said Long. “We got to know them.”


But Taste of Asia took a blow when a wind storm damaged the roof, causing the business to close for a time for repairs. When they reopened, customers came back.


“I think it was great ‘til COVID hit,” Justin said. Restaurants weren’t allowed to have indoor dining, just takeout. 


“That hurt me a lot,” said Long. “Then we were broken into and robbed. There was lots of damage and racial slurs. That was very hard for me.” 

Justin said some people wanted to place blame for COVID and were “going after Asians. So I posted on social media and people responded.”


“I want to say thank-you to everybody in Randolph County who helped,” Long said.


Justin and Vanny could have gone to work at Honda Jet or other good jobs but chose to stay at Taste of Asia. “I stayed here to help my mom,” said Justin.


Vanny added, “It’s a good family business. I help as much as I can to make it easier on them.”


“We need their help very bad and I feel sorry about it,” Long said.


“Even after COVID, it’s still a little slow,” said Justin. “We went through a lot of struggles but worked hard and held on.”


Asked if she would do anything special for the 25th anniversary, Long said, “I want to do something but I’m scared. I don’t have money to do things.”


But she does have a unique cuisine to offer. Long describes their food as “very light and simple. The food is a little more spicy and sweet from Thailand and the Cambodian is more savory. Everything is organic, no additives like MSG.”


With a hot, rainy climate, Cambodians harvest plenty of vegetables and spices. Long said she has her own garden, growing lime leaves, lemon grass, basil and other produce. But the moles tend to like her cabbage and potatoes.


Justin put his stamp of approval on the quality of the food when he said, “We eat here too.”


Taste of Asia is open Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Saturday from 4:30-9:30 p.m.; and Sunday from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m. The business is closed on Mondays.