Try thai in the spirit of adventure
Three restaurants offer suggestions for exploring the Thai menu
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Supreecha Sangthong of Pae Thai Restaurant serves his specialty, Wing Bean Salad.
Pae Thai Restaurant
1246 South King St. (parking in rear or on the street); 596-8106. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.
The dish: Wing Bean Salad is a special concoction of 55-year-old co-owner Supreecha Sangthong (nicknamed "Dang"). "This is done in Central Thai style, but with local ingredients," said Sangthong.
Locally grown wing beans are steamed and chopped, then sautéed with boiled ground chicken and crispy red onions, and topped with a cooked peanut sauce of coconut milk, salt, sugar and vinegar.
The result is a lightly flavored salad with an unusually exotic taste. It makes a great appetizer.
"I developed it because I found the wing bean plant here, and wanted to make a dish with it," explained Sangthong.
About the restaurant:
"Northern Thai cooking, being close to China, is not very hot. Central Thai style is medium-hot, and Southern Thai cooking, being close to India, is very hot."|
Co-owner, Pae Thai restaurant
Interested in plants and food since childhood, Sangthong learned to cook from his mother, who sold food from an outdoor stall in Bangkok. He graduated with a vocational degree from Maejo University (famous for its agriculture program) in Chiang-Mai province in Thailand, then earned a master's degree in agricultural education from the University of the Philippines.
He joined his sister in Hawaii in 1978, and studied agriculture and economics at the University of Hawaii for a short time. Sangthong was also a chef at Siam Orchid restaurant in the Ala Moana area for two years, and then was a chef at Golden Dragon restaurant at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for 11 years.
He and his wife, Natsuree (also Thai-born), decided to open their own business in 1996, after working for so many others, and have been at the South King Street location ever since.
"My wife manages the outside (business end) and I manage the inside (cooking end)," Sangthong said.
"Pae" in the restaurant's name is the name of a famous monk in Thailand.
"Our business has been steady, and people seem to find us by word of mouth, because we don't really advertise. We have about 80 percent locals coming here and the rest are tourists."
Even the New York Times found Pae Thai and mentioned the restaurant several years ago.
But for Sangthong, who has surrounded his restaurant with small garden planters of Thai herbs, it's all about the ingredients and the cooking.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The rice noodles in Chiang-Mai Casserole (Op Mo Din) cover a serving of either crab or shrimp.
Chiang-Mai Thai Cuisine
2239 South King St. (parking in rear or on street); 941-1151 or 941-3777. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. nightly.
The dish: Chiang-Mai Casserole (Op Mo Din -- literally, "steamed pot") is another one of those "don't burn your hands" dishes common to many Asian cultures. It's served steaming hot in a small pan after being cooked for about 20 minutes, according to co-owner Lilly Bujoli.
It's a mainly long-rice-noodle dish that comes in two varieties -- shrimp or crab -- seasoned with black pepper, ginger, red peppers, parsley, dried garlic and onions, and cooked along with white cabbage in a Thai crab-paste sauce. It's light and delicately spicy.
"This is a meal that can be eaten every day," said Bujoli, "although I suppose it was most popular during the winter time, to help keep you warm."
About the restaurant:
University of Hawaii alumnus Vincent Hu got the idea to open a Thai restaurant in 1987 (after graduating with a bachelor's in business administration), when he saw the demand for Thai food.
"I convinced my parents and my younger sister and brothers (sister Lilly, and brothers Kissa and Art) to be co-owners with me, and we're still here in the same location, 20 years later."
They even expanded 10 years ago, when the Hisago Japanese catering company closed.
The restaurant is well-patronized by both locals and tourists -- "about 70 percent locals and 30 percent tourists," said Hu. "We're very popular with UH and East-West Center faculty."
Although the family is from Laos (via Paris), Hu notes that Chiang-Mai is a northern province of Thailand bordering Laos, from which they get their style of cuisine. "My grandmother was a professional cook in Laos and, of course, she passed this on to my mother."
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Siam Garden Cafe co-owner and manager Chonnida Khanthavong serves a bowl of Floating Market Noodles.
Siam Garden Cafe
1130 North Nimitz Highway, No. 130 (parking in front lot and behind restaurant); 523-9338. Open 11 a.m. to midnight Mondays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays).
The dish: Floating Market Noodles (Gwayteow Reua -- "gwayteow" meaning "rice noodles" and "reua" meaning "boat") is traditionally served from the boats in the canals of Bangkok. It's similar to Chinese oxtail soup, but is a heartier broth made of beef and pork, cooked with thin rice noodles (similar to the noodles in Vietnamese pho), ong choi, bean sprouts and lettuce. It may be ordered with beef or pork chunks. Parsley and roasted garlic are added for seasoning. The taste is lighter and more delicately flavored than the local oxtail soup.
"The beef variety is stewed for about an hour beforehand, to make it tender," explained co-owner Ed Gum, "and then there's a mixture of cuts of beef, for texture and flavoring.
"This is an everyday dish that you'd find in Central Thailand."
About the restaurant: Gum, a St. Louis graduate, was casting around for a second career after retiring from the Army as a military adviser in Thailand. Since he and his wife, Dusanee Janjan, had found some of Honolulu's Thai food lacking compared to what they had tasted while in Thailand, they decided to open their own restaurant.
Along with Dusanee's sister, Chonnida Khanthavong, and her husband, Davis Khanthavong, they opened Siam Garden Cafe on Father's Day 2004. Dusanee was born in Central Thailand and had owned two restaurants there, besides being an avowed "foodie."
Gum grew up in Kalihi, so the Nimitz location was his backyard. "The first year was rough, and we had no advertising, but we were able to make the rent, so we hung in there."
Three years later, their customer base has solidified to "70 percent locals and 30 percent military," noted Gum. "We get the odd tourist here and there, but we do get a lot of students from UH and Hawaii Pacific University, and then the monks from the Thai temple.
"And Thai and Laotian workers like to hang out here after work because our food is authentic, and because we have late-night karaoke in their languages."
Customer Sheila Sugano of Makiki says she loves the Tom Yum (Spicy Sour Soup) and Tom Kha (Thai Ginger Soup). "I'm never disappointed," she said. "Their flavor is totally different, it's interesting, their service is good, and they have ample portions."
Jackie M. Young's previous explorations took her to Honolulu's Vietnamese and Korean restaurants. Her articles may be viewed online:|