Good Eats: The Little Thai Restaurant That Could
By Janet Gibson
Photography by Cindy Burnham
Sometimes what we hunger for the most isn’t about food. It’s about receiving “the humble heart,” if you ask restaurant owner Pornjai Smith, the unofficial godmother of Person Street.
At her modest PJ Thai Cuisine, a convenience store-turned-eatery, she offers encouraging words with no judgment. Some of her customers are without homes, hope or any kind of happiness. But, when she smiles at them, somehow the glow transfers. Like a magic beam of light that travels from one human being to another. And nothing can stop the flow.
Her acts of kindness are quiet, from offering clothing in a back office to help with transportation and finding jobs. “Ms. PJ” or “Mom,” as she is often called, knows that she cannot help everyone, but she tries.
And, of course, Ms. PJ feeds them, too. “Pay what you can, when you can,” she says to those who have fallen on hard times, as she discreetly hands them a carryout container filled with delicious food. Because she too knows what it is like to be hungry.
A few have returned and offered to pay full price for their meals. The once displaced, now with shelter and jobs. A recovering addict who recently completed rehab. A former prostitute who was trained as a nurse and returned to that profession. Those closest to Ms. PJ say their turnaround is due to her influence, which gives her great joy, but she takes no credit.
Perhaps life itself has given her a greater capacity to nurture and love. Hers has been a journey of pain, loss and survival, from her native Thailand to America, from orphan to widow and breast cancer survivor and unimaginable abuse. She rarely shares her personal story, preferring to listen to those in front of her. She credits her faith, her God, for getting her through it all.
Every day but Sunday, the restaurant is a revolving door of humanity – including Gen Z to Boomers, artists to active-duty soldiers, local business owners, as well as lawyers and judges from the nearby county courthouse. And her homeless people. “I love to cook so much!” she says, demonstrating her skills in an open kitchen with her trusted “second cook,” Francisco Argueta, who is from El Salvador. “I love to see all the smiles!”
The menu is primarily Thai with some Chinese dishes. One of the most-requested orders is traditional Pad Thai, flat, silky rice noodles mixed with stir-fried chicken strips in a “secret blend of seasonings,” and then topped with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and bean sprouts. The flavor just gets better with every forkful, if that’s even possible. Ms. PJ’s personal favorite dish is basil chicken spooned over fluffy jasmine rice. The basil is grown on-site, alongside individual pots of lemongrass, cilantro, lime, green onions and more.
Also popular are the curries, which come in the colors of a rainbow, and are punctuated with your choice of chicken, shrimp, beef, pork or duck and, of course, supremely fresh vegetables. We are asked to specify 1 through 5 on the spicy scale (aware that even a 2 or 3 could mean fire on your tongue). On one of my visits, Ms. PJ had me sample the red curry as she prepared it. “I like spicy, but it’s just a little hot,” I said upon first taste. “I calm it down!” she replied, going back to work in her sizzling wok. Who does that? She cares that much. And, yes, the curry was perfection.
That brand of caring brings new folks in almost daily. Two people who were among the first to get hooked and sing PJ’s praises on social media (and beyond) are David Nash and Jenny Bell. They discovered the owner and her place just after she opened on March 4, 2019. Bell, a local marketing professional, is an advocate of downtown Fayetteville. “Whether she’s serving a group of attorneys or filling up to-go plates for people without housing, she ensures everyone who walks through those doors on Person Street knows they’re valuable, loved and worthy of respect,” Bell says. “We need more Ms. PJs in our world. Downtown Fayetteville is beyond lucky to claim this ‘godmother’ as one of their own.”
Nash is the research and data manager for the Fayetteville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, just a stone’s throw from PJ Thai. Before civilian life, he spent seven years in the Navy, including time in Thailand where he grew to appreciate the cuisine.
“I like PJ’s food hot and will order red curry with chicken, pineapple and bamboo shoots,” he says. But some days, he will ask PJ “to make something not on the menu.” One day recently, she surprised him with a “crispy pork dish, and it was great.”
Nash says he, too, has witnessed Ms. PJ reaching out to feed homeless persons “on several occasions.”
Like a schoolteacher preparing for her students, Ms. PJ often begins her mornings arranging a white board on an easel with photos of the day’s specials. We see a variety of items, from summer rolls to soups to satay and fried rice to fried fish. Prices range from $6.95 to $10.95. On this day, the first customer orders the fried tilapia at 11 a.m. He works at the motel next door. We watch him eat half and save the remainder for dinner, savoring every bite. He says he will order the same dish at least three times every week. “It’s good food,” he says, “and she’s good people.”
Another customer, Tim Juneau, says his job as safety director for Horne Brothers Construction frequently takes him out of town, and one of his first stops upon returning home is PJ’s. He spent time in Thailand while serving in the military some years ago and notes that Ms. PJ can cook the styles of all the various regions of the country, so just ask her if you have something special in mind.
He leaves it up to PJ to surprise him with lunch, and she delivers a beef salad, beautifully presented on a bed of lettuce with carrots, cucumbers, chili peppers, cilantro, basil and mint in her special dressing. “It’s all at once sweet, spicy and sour,” he says, relishing every bite.
Ms. PJ will tell you that, growing up, cooking was survival. She never knew her parents and was given a birth date of Aug. 2, 1951 in an orphanage just outside of Bangkok. At 9, she was adopted into a family that made her cook and clean to earn her keep. She tells of abuse and was given very little to eat.
She was still a teenager when she came to the United States in 1970 with her first husband, an American soldier. He kept her in their small apartment in Hackensack, New Jersey. “He wanted me to cook and clean,” she says. But she wanted more. She taught herself how to speak English by watching “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” on TV.
After 13 years, she divorced. Always one to work hard, she had jobs managing custodial and cafeteria staffs on Fort Bragg and in restaurants, waiting tables and cooking, too. She also found true love, marrying for a second time in 1996. “A good man,” she says.
In October 2017, her husband died of cancer. Five months later, PJ would be diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and
undergo radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.
In many ways she felt alone, but also blessed to be helped by her church family. An adopted daughter lives in Thailand, and an adopted son died in a car accident at 18. A year after being diagnosed, and in remission, she knew the time was right to make her dream come true. She opened PJ Thai Cuisine restaurant – a year before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. Ms. PJ had to “pivot” like other business owners – no more buffet. More takeout orders. And, of course, increased sanitary measures.
She also relies on a small staff who are “like family.” Indeed, PJ’s is the little Thai restaurant that could. PJ also believes her faith has gotten her through the worst times. And her commitment to keep caring for people regardless of the news. She also has stepped up her efforts to feed the homeless, helping a friend with an outreach program in Hope Mills.
At 5 feet 2 inches tall, she is small in stature, but a giant to many who have been recipients of her kindness.
“When you do things for people, you can change their lives,” she says.
“Everybody got to crawl before they walk. You got to be patient and … work hard. Through the grace of God and a strong belief,
it will get better.” It’s about lifting others up. It’s about reaching out. It’s about feeding souls. It’s about the humble heart.
PJ Thai Cuisine is at 329 Person St. in downtown Fayetteville near the Cumberland County Courthouse. The restaurant is open
Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed on Sunday and major holidays. Most entrees are $6.95 to $13.95, not including nonalcoholic beverages. Order online at
pjthaicuisine.com. Also, Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates, DoorDash, and ezCater. Phone 910-491-7185.