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Monthien Tang, better known as Aunty La, at the Avondale Sunday Market. Photo/Amanda Saxton
With flowers in her hair, “Aunty La” has been serving Thai food at Avondale’s Sunday Market for decades. Amanda Saxton tries it.
A man wearing a hunting and fishing hat recently told me that “aunt
La and Uncle Tuoi taught this old Maori fulla to love chilli oil.” We were at the Avondale Sunday Market, each with a steaming bowl of Thai noodle soup ($15). “Hot condiments would compromise my ability to appreciate more subtle flavors. Sixty-one-year-old James Kawiti pushed me to continue. He comes down from the Hokianga every few months to stock up on pots.
“I’ve been eating here for 20 years…this place is close to my heart,” Kawiti continued. “That’s how Aunt La treats people. Her aroha. She’s famous here, ask anyone.”
Monthien Tang – better known as Aunty La – is an Avondale institution. A ray of sunshine from a woman, with flowers in her hair and jokes for loyal customers, in the sunny yellow food truck she operates with her husband, Sisongkhami Sirisomphone (better known as Uncle Tuoi) . People line up for the couple’s noodle soups and crispy golden pork crackers. They’re snapping up $4 assorted skewers: chicken satay, barbecue pork, moneybags, pork meatballs, Thai sausage. Her homemade chili oil, infused with dried shrimp, ginger and lemongrass, wraps others.
Aunty La’s recipes come from Thailand, but Tang, 54, and Sirisomphone, 61, are from neighboring Laos. They are refugees who fled the aftermath of a proxy war between Cold War powers. In the 1960s and 1970s, America dropped enough bombs on Laos to make it the most bombed country in the world per capita. Still, the Soviet-backed communists won, remaining in power today.
Sirisomphone reached New Zealand in 1979. Tang arrived in 1985. They met in an Auckland nightclub and married in the early 90s. Together they owned three restaurants: Vietnamese, then Thai , then again Thai. It’s easier to convince New Zealanders to eat cuisines they already know, says Sirisomphone (even though Laos food, when cooked by her mother, is “the best in the world”). The Avondale Market food truck has been their hustler for decades. Since Covid killed the couple’s last Thai restaurant, it has become their main source of income. Tang and Sirisomphone spend four days preparing for the market each week. A friend, brother or one of their three children usually helps out behind the counter on Sundays.
To find Aunty La’s, head from the market parking lot to the Poetry is Great lady. You will recognize it by its sign. She guarded the entrance to the market for a long time, singing softly while strumming her guitar. Continue straight ahead. You’ll pass vendors of fluffy slippers and jars labeled “house salted fish.” Counterfeit Louis Vuitton racks and a huge selection of woks. Fruit, vegetable and flower stalls emerge on your right. A flea market materializes on your left. Next comes the crucial “cash out” stall (most vendors here only sell cash). Walk past a small courtyard where congee and hot donuts are sold. Wait for Thai. If you get to a key cutter, you’ve gone too far. Aunty La is to her left.
A few picnic tables crowd next to the food truck. These fill up quickly, so I brought my noodle soup from the racetrack side of the stadium. Market days, by the way, are much busier than race days at Avondale. I sat between the chanting of Christian evangelists and the bazaar of tools, glad I had said yes to chili oil. He did not submerge. It warmed, perked up and blossomed in my mouth, leaving a lingering tingle. The soup (a hodgepodge of skewered beef balls, shredded chicken, fried dumplings, mung beans, cilantro, egg noodles – and an unidentified sweet-tasting orange cartilage) would have been a bit bland without she.
You know what’s not bland? Crowds at Avondale Market. As I ate, I watched exuberant children wielding toy guns and hot dogs. Women in saris haggle over bric-a-brac. A man with a sausage dog under one arm and a chainsaw under the other is trying to pick up a painting. Shopping bags looked ready to burst with fresh snapper, cheap beets and obscenely shaped daikon. New Zealand’s largest and oldest market offers a dose of humanity that’s a bit like Aunty La’s chilli oil.
Aunty La’s Thai food truck
Avondale Sunday Market
Opening hours: Sunday, 8am-12pm
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