In Boracay’s Bulabog Road, there’s a small, unassuming eatery that’s become the go-to place for locals and tourists looking for Thai dishes. “Authentic tasty Thai food, we serve only the best,” the signage says proudly upfront—and it’s returning customers wouldn’t disagree.
The name of the place is Congas, like that Latin American dance Gloria Estefan used to sing about, but with an ‘s.’ Just like Gloria, the owner and chef behind this hole in the wall is a petite lady, and like the dance, she’s lively and perky, possessed of an unmistakable contagious energy.
Her name is Lorie Ponce Langley, and like her signage suggests, she’s not the type to settle for anything less. Before she decided to put up Congas in November 2020, she immersed herself in authentic Thai cooking by learning from Bangkok’s locals, visiting Thailand twice a year to get the tricks and tips straight from its homegrown cooks.
No wonder the transportive quality of her dishes, from her amazing lemongrass chicken to her popular curry dishes to her sauces. They really take you back to Bangkok’s streets. “Hindi ako sa mga restaurants nagpupunta kasi hindi na yun authentic,” she tells ANCX about her education in Thai cuisine. “Doon ako sa mga locals talaga—sa mga streets at sa probinsya.” Whatever she may have missed, YouTube videos provide.
No mountain high enough
Before opening her restaurant, Lorie made sure she had all the key ingredients at her disposal. She knew the secret to fabulous Thai dishes are fresh herbs so she searched far and wide. “Kahit sa mga bundok naghahanap ako ng herbs,” she says. “Minsan umabot ng libo ang nagagastos ko per kilo ng sweet basil, samantalang sa Manila mura lang yan.”
Speaking of herbs, it’s one of the reasons the fifty-something chef fell in love with Thai cooking. “Mahilig ako sa herbs kasi mabuti sya sa katawan,” she says, adding that certain varieties helped her deal with high cholesterol level. She also incorporates locally available herbs in her dishes, from tanglad to ginger to galangal.
Lorie takes the most pride in her curry dishes, which are among her bestellsers. She has about 15 of them on the menu—Thai Crabs Curry with Vegetable, Masaman Beef Curry, Red Thai Chicken Curry (which also comes in green curry), Pork Panang Curry, Red Shrimp Curry, the list goes on. We’re fans of her Red Thai Chicken Curry—every bite an explosion of flavors.
She’s happy to say she only uses the most honest ingredients available to her. “Hindi ako gumagamit ng [coconut milk] in can kasi may preservatives na yan. Every day, we buy fresh coconut. Nagpapakudkod kami araw-araw,” the lady offers. All the herbs in her tom yum are fresh, the chef says proudly, which contribute to its unmistakeable Thai taste. Despite this, Lorie gets to keep her prices at an affordable range (P200+ to P400).
Lorie discovered her interest in cooking at a very young age. Her aunt once had a restaurant and her father was a cook. In Davao, where Lorie was born and raised, they often sold food in the sabungan especially on school breaks. “Natuto akong magluto I was 14 years old,” she says—it was also the age she started dreaming of putting up her own restaurant.
She nurtured her love for cooking even as she entered married life at the age of 28. She got hitched to a Brit with whom she now has two children. Lorie had the chance to sharpen her culinary chops when she worked at her mother-in-law’s restaurant in England during one of her pregnancies in the late 90s. Eventually, she worked as a caregiver where she was tasked to cook for about a hundred elderly patients at a time. She also worked as a hotel cook, which should explain her familiarity with dishes from other countries—Congas, when it was just starting, had a more international menu.
It was in 1991 when the Davaoeña first set foot on the sands of Boracay. She fell in love with the place and has since considered herself a Boracaynon at heart. In 2003, she and her husband decided to make the island their home. He pursued diving and Lorie found herself becoming a broker. The couple would eventually separate.
The broker remembers being so desperate and heartbroken after the separation. “Hindi ako lumabas ng tatlong buwan,” she recalls.
It was in starting up a restaurant that she found joy again. With the P750,000 she saved up, the Davaoeña found a way to make her dream of becoming a chef and restaurateur come true. She built Congas from the ground up, quite literally. “Pati kitchen ko ako lang nagpapanday nyan,” she fondly recalls.
Opening a business during a pandemic may not be the best idea for some but she started Congas anyway. While waiting for the Thai ingredients she ordered, she served Filipino food. When her orders arrived, she decided to focus on what she calls “pure, authentic Thai dishes.”
It turned out to be a good business move. “Nagulat ang mga tao paano ko nakaya,” Lorie says, beaming with pride. “Sabi ko, tiyaga lang talaga. Kung magsabi ka na pandemic ngayon at hindi mo subukan, wala mangyayari. Subukan mo lang.”
As her regulars can attest, the lady is very hands-on in running her business. She is server, guest relations officer, cashier, and sometimes cook. She’s at the market by 7:30AM to make sure she gets the freshest meat and vegetables. “Pag minsan naubusan ng bulaklak, tatatakbo ako, sasakay ako single bike at hahanapin ko saan may mga garden at kukuha lang ako,” she says, smiling, ever the resourceful go-getter.
She claims to be very strict when it comes to the quality of her food, not just in flavors but in the handling of dishes. “Sinasabi ko nga dito sa mga tagaluto ko, ayokong may magsasabi na yung pagkain mo hindi maganda. Dapat palaging the best,” she says. Whenever her cooks need to take a day-off, she personally mans the kitchen.
The hardworking restaurateur does the inventories in the afternoon when the lunch crowd has left, and again in the evening after closing. “Sa negosyo, kung gusto mo talagang makita kung ano mali or ano pa ang dapat iimprove, dapat andun ka mismo para personal na patakbuhin ito,” she tells us, sounding like a mother dispensing life advice.
Congas might still be considered a newbie in the business but it’s gained its own set of fans and Lorie has even received offers to open a branch in Manila. But Boracay’s ‘Curry Queen’ says she’s happy where the eatery is at the moment, serving the best to locals and tourists alike as pandemic borders begin to open up and prospects start looking bright again. So if you happen to be in Boracay and are looking for something to excite your tastebuds, check out Congas and look for Lorie. Actually, despite the lady’s size, there’s little chance you’ll miss her.
Photos from Congas Restaurant Boracay's Facebook page