ITHACA, NY -- Tam and Christine Lam, daughters of the beloved owners of Saigon Kitchen on West State Street in downtown Ithaca, have opened their own cafe on Restaurant Row.
Taking over the space left behind by Mediterranean restaurant Sahara, which closed in 2018, Hound and Mare is a deviation from the Vietnamese roots of its owners. Christine just recently returned from L.A., where she spent the past four years. Hound and Mare, an idea she had had for years, finally came to fruition in the form of an L.A.-inspired restaurant that specializes in breakfast sandwiches, coffee and bakery items.
“I wanted to do something a little bit different,” Christine explains. “It’s a little bit hard working with family sometimes. I’m very opinionated and I know what I like and I know what I want, so I kind of wanted to separate myself from my parents a little bit.”
The name Hound and Mare comes from the Chinese zodiac animals of the two sisters, “Hound” for Tam and “Mare” for Christine. Tam handles the marketing of the business while simultaneously being the vice president of Warren Real Estate, and Christine runs the day-to-day of the restaurant.
“Originally it was supposed to be a lunch concept,” Christine explains. “When I first got back from L.A., I just felt like there wasn’t anywhere you could get a quick lunch that wasn’t super heavy.”
Taking inspiration from L.A.’s food scene, which is dominated by fresh veggie dishes and light meals, the original menu for Hound and Mare was meant to be a step away from standard Ithaca dining.
“But then when we started construction,” Christine explains, “it ended up taking a lot longer than expected. We had planned to open up at the end of summer, but we didn’t make that benchmark. We were going into fall, and I just didn’t feel like people were going to be into salads and stuff for winter, so we pivoted to breakfast sandwiches.”
Despite the shift from the original idea for the Hound and Mare menu, there is still an homage to L.A. in the form of the names of each kind of breakfast sandwich offered on the menu, which are named after streets in Los Angeles.
While some new arrivals to the restaurant industry may spend years trying to perfect their menu, Hound and Mare stands out in its intent to continually change its menu and excite its customers in new ways.
“February is a bit of a heavy month for us because we have the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and Chinese New Year,” Christine said.
For the Super Bowl, Hound and Mare will begin to offer “burger boxes” that can be shared between friends and family. The restaurant will also be recruiting a close friend of Christine’s to offer Valentine’s Day fudge cakes featuring a floating champagne glass. Lastly, in time for Chinese New Year, the staff of Hound and Mare will compile their own messages for each customer, serving them inside of “head-sized” fortune cookies.
“Especially in the pandemic, people are always looking for any reason to celebrate and get excited” Christine said.
Opening a business in the middle of a pandemic is difficult to say the least, and while the established network of their parents has helped greatly in the success of Hound and Mare, the restaurant is another example of the long-standing relationship and trust between local businesses and the Ithaca community.
“I will say that growing up in Ithaca, I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get out,’” Christine confessed. “But then I went away, and I saw all these other communities and I realized I was so fortunate to have grown up here for so many different reasons, but for sure because of the community.”
Tam and Christine’s parents first immigrated to the United States in the 1970s after the Vietnam War.
“My parents obviously didn’t speak English when they first got here. But they would have people who helped them and never charged them or asked for anything in return. There have been so many people who have gone out of their way to help my parents, from helping them learn English or learn how to use a computer. Students who are here get a taste of that kind of community and then pay it forward. During graduation weekend, students will bring their parents to the restaurant just to meet my parents and be like ‘Oh, this is Mr. and Mrs. Lam. They’ve taken care of me all four years,’ and it’s very, very cute.”
It can be said that Hound and Mare is a symbol of duality on Restaurant Row; it is not one thing over another. It straddles the lines between its Ithacan roots and its L.A. inspiration, between its original conception and current execution, between its familial support and its deviation from tradition. There is no ideal customer that Tam and Christine envisioned and perhaps no final vision to strive for either. It is a business that is only possible through those who pay forward what has been given to them; an English lesson, a familiar face in their corner, a second home.