The story below is an excerpt from our July/August 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
On this trek through the hills and valleys of East Tennessee, our dining writers uncover true Thai curries, tackle burgers dripping with pimento cheese, test beef brisket, and celebrate pigs and corn.
Prayoon Royston picks leaves off her 26-year-old kaffir lime tree and minces them for a red chicken curry. The tree, she says, is like family. She keeps it indoors until any threat of an East Tennessee cold snap has passed.
The tree, in colder months, occupies a spot in a tiny building on Highway 67 in the community of Doeville, in the far northeastern corner of Tennessee. The restaurant is called Monsoon, and Prayoon opened it in the year 2000 to bring Thai cooking to Johnson County.
Herb and vegetable gardens surround the unassuming structure. Pepper plants spring forth from Southeast Asian seeds. Basil flourishes, after the seeds are sprouted just up the road, under constant watch from the talented students and teachers at the Johnson County High School Vocational Center.
“Johnson County is my home,” says Prayoon, known to her customers as Mel, which, she says, means “cat” in Thai. “When I go back to Thailand, I get homesick for East Tennessee.”
For her first job in Thailand, she climbed trees to pick coconuts. When she was nine, her mother died in childbirth.
Prayoon quit school to take care of her new brother, even chewing rice and bananas for him, with no baby food available. That brother died of malaria at age five.
“In America,” Prayoon says, “if you work hard, you can have everything.” She and her daughter Rachel, who will eventually take over the business, are in constant motion, all day and evening, turning out egg rolls stuffed with Johnson County cabbage, spring rolls sweetened with tropical pineapple, and all manner of Thai curries.
“Thai food is complicated,” she tells us. “You have to love it to do this. The main thing is to be calm and don’t panic.”
When she made $25 on her first day, she knew she had made the right decision in opening Monsoon.
We don’t order at Monsoon. Prayoon and Rachel just feed us. They bring Phad Thai, the noodle dish flavored with peanuts and tamarind. They bring, for our dessert, what they typically eat for breakfast, sweetened rice alongside slices of champagne mangoes. They bring Prayoon’s Hot Monsoon Sauce, made in a huge mortar and pestle with peppers, cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar.
In April of 2011, a tornado ripped away part of the roof and the door of the restaurant. The business was closed for a month, and Rachel says her mother was deeply depressed when she couldn’t see her customers.
After the storm, the members of the First Christian Church in Mountain City organized a fund-raising dinner. The menu was totally Thai, and it helped repair the damage.
Back in 2000, Prayoon named her restaurant Monsoon because she said it means a new beginning. Eleven years later, she began again.
Monsoon, 10630 Highway 67 West, Butler, Tennessee. 423-768-3327
Revival at a Country Crossroads
Seeking a business location was secondary to Jason and Kaitlyn Fletcher. As they were planning to relocate from Charleston, South Carolina, their primary motivation was to find a strong school system for their young son Tristan. Research led them to Greene County, Tennessee, home to city and county school systems consistently rated among the best in the country.
Captivated as well by the beauty of Tennessee’s largest county, they made the move and purchased the Glendale Market, a century-old store situated at a country crossroads. Inspired by their four pygmy goats and the desire to create a farm-themed moniker, they called their new business The Hungry Goat and opened the doors on February 1, 2016. It is their first restaurant venture.
“Greeneville and Greene County had everything we wanted,” says Jason. That includes good neighbors, and several of them have added their own artistic touches to the restaurant’s evolving goat logo.
The Fletchers pride themselves on their rural pizza delivery system—up to five miles or, as Jason explains, the bigger the order, the broader the radius.
The Hungry Goat menu is dominated by hamburgers, and the meat is local, coming from longtime Greeneville business Snapps Ferry Packing, which also supplies sirloin for the Philly cheese steak sandwich.
The Breakfast Burger, available all day, is dressed with American cheese, bacon, an over-easy egg, lettuce and tomato. The Fletchers reach northward, Wisconsin way, for the inspiration to serve a Butter Burger, and they remember their Charleston roots through the Pimento Cheeseburger, topped with Palmetto Cheese from back home.
Jason says the best-selling beverage, by far, is Dr. Enuf, made by Tri-City Beverage in Johnson City since 1949 and promoted by the company as America’s first energy drink.
The Fletchers call on Greene County baker Gail Moore when it comes to desserts, all made from scratch with no mixes. The Chocolate Fudge Cake sold at The Hungry Goat is Gail’s mother’s recipe, once known as Chocolate Sour Cake because of the buttermilk content.
The Fletchers focus their new business on the food. As Jason says, “No Lotto, no cigarettes, no gas.”
The Hungry Goat, 3524 Buckingham Road, Greeneville, Tennessee. 423-638-3524