The Budget Epicureans Review: Indochine


Solange Thompson treats herself like the empress of her own restaurant. She decorates her palace with golden statues of Buddhist goddesses, crowds its shelves with exotic knick-knacks and paints its walls with bold patterns of red, gold and green. Locals come in packs to admire her antiques, taste her food and explore the atmosphere. Her workers are adorned in uniform Chinese costumes, her hostesses draped in elegant dresses of silk. If Indochine, Wilmington’s staple Thai and Vietnamese restaurant, had a throne, Solange Thompson would be sitting in it wearing the crown.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, what was then Saigon, Vietnam, Thompson grew up going to a boarding school and mastering the English and French languages, which she knows in addition her native Vietnamese. Her father was an archeologist who would do research in the Sahara Deserts and various caves across the world. “I got my love of antiques and art and different cultures from him,” said Thompson. Her mother was a housewife who had a love for cooking. However, life in South Vietnam became risky for its citizens, where people were plagued with a constant fear of being bombed or separated from their families.

When she was 20 years old she moved to Thailand and worked for her godfather’s French restaurant. “When I first moved to Thailand,” said Thompson, “I couldn’t sleep at night because there were no gunshots.” The culture shock was heavy but enlightening at the same time–as a young adult she suddenly had freedom from the corruption that she had experienced back in Vietnam.

There, she eventually met her husband, then a captain in the United States Air Force, Bob Thompson. She learned how to speak Thai, cook the culture’s food and soon gave birth to her firstborn, Marie.

Soon after, Thompson moved with her new family to the United States, where her husband was stationed in Fort Fisher. Again, she experienced a state of shock between the drastic change in cultures. “When I moved to the U.S.,” said Thompson, “I was amazed that you could travel from California to North Carolina and not be stopped at a checkpoint.” According to her, Bangkok was 20 years ahead of Wilmington. When she first came to the city, she was devastated to discover that unlike Asia, the small town did not supply nor know about fish sauce or bitter melons. “There was only Japanese rice and water chestnut in a can; we had to go get our supplies all the way in Washington, D.C.”

The absence of her husband, combined with the lack of cultural stability, made Thompson feel alone and she soon spiraled into a state of depression for a couple of years. “I missed being able to get in a taxi and going wherever I wanted to go,” said Solange, “Everything is so big here I couldn’t get from one place to another.” The only thing that kept her sane, said Thompson, were her maternal instincts and the births of her second daughter and son: Barbie and Boo. “My husband was supportive but he had a job. There was no book on how to live in the U.S. in 1975.”

Then she met what she still calls today her “emotional savior,” a woman who worked at The Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington who first inspired Solange to do something that she liked–a hobby. The woman saw Thompson’s amazement at the store’s Cuisinart supplies and asked her if she wanted to do a cooking demonstration. This beginning interest in Cuisinart grew to starting cooking classes outside of The Cotton Exchange. Eventually, her classes became so popular that a person finally asked her to start a restaurant. “Looking back, I had no sense of accounting or managing a restaurant at all,” said Solange, “I have no idea how I had the nerve to do it.”

Before Indochine, Thompson ran an antique store on Front Street and had a restaurant called The Eggroll Factory in Wrightsville Beach. Those did not compare, however, to the building off of Market Street and Wayne Drive that she had been eyeing for some time. “I liked the period it was build- 1955,” said Thompson. The original owner, none other than Herbert Fisher, whose name is emblazoned on the UNC Wilmington Fisher Student Center and Student Union, was very helpful to Thompson and in a way became a mentor to her, as well as her chief benefactor. With her collection of antiques and knowledge of different cultures, she wanted to create an atmosphere that brought a bit of her own country and travels to the people of Wilmington. “I wanted to enlighten the people about my country, that it is more than just war.”

Paying attention to architectural detail, she filled the building with all of the art that she and her husband had collected over the years. For the backyard, she stayed true with her vision on wanting her customers to feel as if they were in Thailand or Vietnam as they walked around the restaurant’s exterior. As for the food, she decided to parallel the blending of Asian cultures on the menu as well, offering a wide range of options of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine and sushi.

When she first opened Indochine, the response was unbelievable. It soon thrived under the significant number of loyal customers and word-of-mouth. “After ten years,” said Thompson, “people still come in and thank me for opening this restaurant.” After a decade, the menu still remains mostly the same, besides a few additions to target a select audience, like the Weight Watcher’s section and gluten-free menu. Unlike the food, however, the architecture of Indochine continuously changes in the art, antiques, backyard landscape and expansion.

While Thompson is maintaining her thriving business, she travels traditionally back to Vietnam to visit relatives and to try and help the people there by teaching them management skills. “There is a little gathering of people in Vietnam who listen to me talk about health and hygiene,” said Thompson. To her, Vietnam now is much better than it was in 1975. According to her, the people live better, they have more freedom and it actually is a very place to live. Her youngest daughter and son currently live in Vietnam. Her eldest daughter, Marie, is working closely with her mother as the Indochine banquet manager.

Now one of Thompson’s main focuses and long-kept dreams is to build a museum which features antiques, art and artifacts from Southeast Asian countries. If this cannot come true, however, she says she will eventually donate her antique collection to the City of Wilmington to be displayed in museums, as her father would have wanted.