“We were just starting to ramp back up after Covid”: Sabai Sabai’s co-owners on being kicked out to make way for a TTC project

“We were just starting to ramp back up after Covid”: Sabai Sabai’s co-owners on being kicked out to make way for a TTC project

It’s not often that a restaurant opens, becomes a neighbourhood darling, gets booted from its original location to make way for a condo development, somehow snags another downtown spot nearby, retains its neighbourhood-darling status and survives a global pandemic—only to be uprooted again to make way for yet another development project. But that’s the story for Sabai Sabai, the reliably excellent Lao Thai spot for ping gai chicken, papaya salad and sticky rice, which opened at Church and Dundas in 2012 and relocated to Bloor in 2016. In April, the owners received a notice of expropriation from the city, and the restaurant became a casualty of the TTC’s Bloor-Yonge Station expansion. We caught up with Seng Luong and Jason Jiang—who co-own Sabai Sabai along with Thai-restaurant-empire-builders Nuit and Jeff Regular—about getting caught in yet another urban dust-up, their future plans, and getting a shout-out from Simu Liu.

When did you first hear rumblings that the city might be coming for Sabai Sabai’s digs?

Seng: The rumours started late last year, around the holidays. But we didn’t hear anything official until April. That’s when we received notice that the city would be exercising the expropriation clause in our lease, and we were given 90 days’ notice. I had kind of come to terms with it before we were officially told. But it was very sad. We were just starting to ramp back up after Covid.

Jason: I cried a river! We had lots of plans for the summer, like every summer.

Seng: We wanted to get back to where we had been pre-Covid.

And, obviously, this put a pretty heavy damper on those plans. How did the firm end date affect your staff?

Seng: We were excited about the CaféTO program because we didn’t have a patio before. And being on Bloor Street was amazing, with the street traffic and the people watching. There’s always something happening. We got a taste of it for two summers—when we could actually open.

Jason: The staff were looking forward to the patio also.

Seng: But, because we were winding down, we didn’t bring on new staff as it didn’t feel fair to hire them, train them, then lay them off. We’ve only been able to open the patio on the weekends because we’re running understaffed. We’ve been feeling the impact of the city’s decision for a while now.

Jason: Some people were like, ‘Why bother to open the patio?’ We have such a tight team. So we opened it more for them and to get to enjoy it with them and our friends and our regular customers.

What has the reaction from your community been like?

Seng: We’ve heard Sabai referred to as the bar from Cheers—it’s a drop-in centre for people in the area. It was like that at the old Church and Dundas location, and we carried that feeling over to Yonge and Bloor. The outpouring of support and love—what people are saying and writing—is very humbling. And people we hadn’t seen for some time offered their words of support and love. All the sacrifices we’ve made over the last 10 years were worth it.

How about that shout-out from Simu Liu on your Instagram post?

Seng: That was amazing. He’s always been such a huge supporter, from the beginning—we’ve known him, outside the restaurant, since before he became a Marvel superhero. I think it was his way of letting the world know that, if you haven’t experienced Sabai already, you should come in.

You two are co-owners of Sabai Sabai along with Nuit Regular and her husband, Jeff. How did running the spot as a team of four work? Ever feel like there were, pardon the pun, too many cooks in the kitchen?

Seng: We met Nuit and Jeff at the very first location of Sukhothai, on Parliament—we live in Cabbagetown, so they were our little neighbourhood Thai spot. Even before they opened, we were peeking through the windows, excited to see what was coming up. Then we became huge fans and friends and just decided we needed to do something together. Chef Nuit is the executive chef, so all the food is her area of responsibility. Jason and I are mostly front of house—managing the day-to-day, administrative stuff, staffing, HR.

Jason: We were also very involved in creating the menu at the beginning. Seng and I cook, so all of the Lao dishes—Lao food and northern Thai food are very similar—come from us.

Seng: And we’re very hands-on. We’re at the restaurant all the time, so we personally host whoever’s coming in. We’ve always been big entertainers, even before the restaurant. It’s basically hosting dinner parties, but with a lot of staff.

Jason: And that was a huge part of deciding to open a restaurant for Seng and I. We grew up in such big families, we entertain a lot and we just want a place where our friends can come be a part of it.

Your last service will be on July 23. What have you got planned?

Seng: We thought really hard about that. We wanted to have a big blowout going-away party, but there’s just too many people we’d have to invite. So it’s tricky. We just told everyone to come by, if they can, before our last day to get one final visit in.

Now that you’ll have a few more free nights, are there any restaurants you’re excited to check out?

Seng: Henry’s and Bernhardt’s are on the list. There are more places to try than there is time.

Jason: We just tried Mimi’s Chinese last week. It was a great experience. We had the four-foot noodles, the steamed fish, the char siu.

So—no pressure—what’s next? And will it involve ping gai chicken?

Seng: Jason and I will do some travelling to recharge. We’re going to Laos—where we’re both from—for a few months. Do some research, get some inspiration and see where that leads.

Jason: But we are looking for a new spot.

Seng: We’re going to play it by ear. We’re not travelling until January, and a lot can happen between now and then.