Tamayo’s Restaurant owner starting fresh

Jessie Tamayo

As far back as she can remember, Jessie Tamayo has prepared her own food.

It was that way growing up in Laos. It continues today.

“I was so picky,” she said. “I would eat nothing, not even my mom’s cooking. And not just family. Everywhere.”

It should be no surprise, then, that Tamayo feels right at home in the kitchen of a new restaurant she recently opened in downtown Oak Harbor.

Tamayo’s Restaurant bears her name, a testament to the independent spirit and strong business sense she’s carried since she was a young girl.

Growing up poor in the Southeast Asia country of Laos, Tamayo was the eldest of three siblings and used to help her family by selling Thai iced teas, grilled bananas and meatballs at markets at the age of 6.

She went on to work for the government in Laos but kept her hand in business as well, selling motorcycles and ice and even working in the fashion industry.

“I did too many things,” she said.

Now 48, Tamayo is a single mother of three and business owner of her second restaurant in a new country. She’s lived near Seattle since 2001 and owned a restaurant in Issaquah for the past four years.

She chose Oak Harbor for her latest venture because it felt right in so many ways. Not only did she want a venue with more seating and a more affordable lease, she liked the community, the people and the schools and could see it as a place to retire.

She and her eldest son Joe, 24, are business partners, but she is the one in the kitchen, preparing dishes from custom recipes that she learned from the many influences she experienced in Laos.

Tamayo calls her cuisine Asian fusion, which is a blend of Laotian, Vietnamese and Thai. She said she doesn’t worry about the number of other Asian restaurants in town because she believes her dishes are unique. They come from homemade recipes she developed throughout her life, creating her own twist from many influences such as family and friends.

She said she got a taste of all sorts of cuisine living in Southeast Asia, from meals prepared by her parents, who lived in Thailand and moved to Laos; her stepfather, who is from the Phillipines; to a Vietnamese neighbor and brother-in-law.

“That’s why my food is different,” she said.

Brenda Pike, co-owner of Wild Magnolia gift shop across the street, has been impressed.

“It’s very fresh,” Pike said. “I’ve been here almost every day since she’s opened.”

Tamayo’s, located at 800 S.E. Pioneer Way at the former site of Kakies Bakery, opened its doors July 2. The restaurant is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Tamayo said long hours, sometimes 18-hour days, don’t bother her and don’t compare to the hectic work life she experienced in Laos.

She’s driven to succeed and said she’s happy to serve customers on Whidbey Island. She travels to Seattle often to get the specialty ingredients and produce she needs for dishes that range from mild to very hot.

“Everything I do, I put all of my heart into it,” she said.