Tanya Tandoc knew everyone in Wichita. At least, that’s how it seemed.
And they all thought they knew her, even if they’d only eaten in her restaurant, Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, once or admired her boisterousness, boldness and quirky style from afar.
On Friday – after learning of her death – those who knew her well described her as a woman with many talents whose culinary skills were matched only by her warmth and ability to make anyone she met feel loved and cared for. Tandoc was known not only for her restaurant – which always had long lines of people waiting for her famous chicken curry or tomato bisque soups – but also for her love of belly dancing, her willingness to participate in local charity events and her skill at creating music behind her cello and pottery behind her wheel.
She was a devoted stepmother and caring friend, her friends said. She was a hugger who daily threw her arms around strangers.
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She loved her pets and particularly loved the pug breed. Several sandwiches on her menu were named for her pugs.
She reviewed restaurants for KMUW and was an outspoken supporter of locally-owned restaurants.
The news of her death dominated social media as friends, customers, restaurant owners and city officials posted tributes. Tanya’s Soup Kitchen at 1725 E. Douglas was closed and will remain so for several days. Tandoc’s brother, Warren Tandoc, also closed his two Espresso to Go Go locations.
Tanya Tandoc, 45, was found dead in her home on South Minneapolis late Thursday night. Police have arrested a man and booked him on suspicion of first-degree murder. Curtis C. Mitchell, 47, was listed on Wichita police arrest records as having been arrested at the same address.
“Taking care of other people was really important to her,” said Molly Audley, co-owner of local bar The Artichoke and a member of Tandoc’s close-knit group of girlfriends. “She always wanted you to feel good when you left her. She volunteered her time and talents, and she was one of those pure people who was really selfless.”
On social media Friday, friends filled Tandoc’s Facebook page with posts. Dozens of people posted pictures of themselves with Tandoc, showing her smiling, dancing, goofing around.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell posted about her death early Friday on Twitter. “The Wichita community is saddened today by the passing of Tanya Tandoc,” he wrote. “She will be greatly missed.”
Early love of cooking
Tandoc grew up in Newton, the oldest of three siblings. Her sister, Elissa McDonald, lives in Independence, Mo.
Tandoc was married to local musician Wayne Gottstine of the band Split Lip Rayfield from 2001 until April of this year.
She attended culinary school in San Francisco, and upon returning home in the mid 1990s, she worked in the kitchen of then-new restaurant Larkspur in Old Town. She is credited with creating several of its signature dishes, including the Metro salad and pistachio chicken.
In November 1997, a then-27-year-old Tandoc opened her first restaurant in a tiny building at 725 E. Douglas, which now is occupied by a Cox Customer Care center. Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, a lunch-only spot that served decadent soups and gourmet sandwiches, quickly became one of Wichita’s most popular restaurants.
Not only did people love the food, but they loved the outgoing, tattooed owner, who populated her staff with young people who shared her quirky spirit.
When Tandoc lost the lease in 2004 and decided to close, local foodies felt the loss. They lived without her famous bread pudding with caramel sauce and Milano roast beef sandwich until 2011, when Tandoc found the right place and the right time to reopen.
Her new Tanya’s Soup Kitchen returned to public jubilation and remains a favorite Wichita lunch destination. Those who would drive by the restaurant in the middle of the afternoon would frequently see Tandoc perched on a step outside, smoking an American Spirit cigarette – her favorite – and chatting with co-workers.
Tandoc’s younger brother, Warren, partnered with her to reopen the soup kitchen, but the two had a falling out and had not been in contact for several years. Warren Tandoc said Friday that his family was devastated by the news.
As a child, he said, Tanya was a voracious reader, and her parents, Valentin and Bonnie Tandoc, bought her the Time Life series of 27 cookbooks from the late 1960s and early 1970s called “Foods of the World.”
“Tanya read every one of those,” he said. “She must have been 10 and she read those; her mind caught fire. We never ate a regular meal again.”
Warren Tandoc said that his memories of his sister will be from his childhood, when she took care of him and looked out for him.
“Her creativity was unique, and her drive,” he said. “She was a strong, strong person. She loved people so deeply, and you can see the evidence of that. People love Tanya.”
Tandoc also was a teacher. She had offered cooking classes at both of her restaurants since she opened them, and until recently, she was a yoga instructor, her friends said. She also was a certified teacher of American Tribal Style dance, a form of belly dancing, and she taught classes at Amira Dance Productions.
Mario Quiroz, the owner of Molino’s Mexican Cuisine, 1064 N. Waco, was one of Tandoc’s close friends. She was a big supporter of his original restaurant, Frida’s, which closed. When he reopened in 2013 as Molino’s, she became a regular at his restaurant and gave it a rave review on her KMUW segment.
Tandoc also befriended Quiroz’s wife and co-owner, Mara, and got her involved in belly dancing. The new hobby and group of friends made his wife so happy, a tearful Quiroz said Friday. The group danced at the Wichita Riverfest on Thursday and wondered why Tandoc didn’t show up.
Quiroz said he will miss Tandoc as a friend and as a person who loved food and supported local businesses.
“She was a great asset,” he said. “She always was trying to spread the word and tell Wichitans, ‘You need to support local. We need to be locals and support each other.’ She was always the first person in line to support a new local business.”
On Friday afternoon, Tandoc’s inner circle of friends gathered on Audley’s back porch to share stories, cry and laugh. They all applied jewels to their foreheads – “bindi,” which are commonly used in belly dancing costumes. They drank wine out of coffee cups, something Tandoc always did to keep her cats – and herself – from spilling her drinks.
Tandoc’s girlfriends all described her as a friend who made them feel beautiful. She embraced “jiggle” in the middle and insisted that it made women more attractive. Belly dancing, for Tandoc, was about celebrating the female body, they said.
All agreed that when they talked to Tandoc, she made them feel like they were her favorite person. All said Tanya had delivered at least one pot of soup to their houses when someone in their family was sick or celebrating.
If Tanya was at the gathering, the friends said, she’d be inside, whipping up something to eat that would make it all better. The group is planning a celebration of Tandoc’s life for sometime next week.
Among the people gathered was close friend Twyla Smith. The two met through belly dancing and quickly developed a bond.
“When I first met her, I remember thinking, ‘God, I wish my friends were that cool,’ ” Smith said. “Then we became friends very quickly, and I was just astounded that this awesome woman thought I was awesome, too.”