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Traipsing the Tri-Cities for the real taste of Thailand

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 5:14 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Kara Silva – ksilva@shawmedia.com)
VinoThai co-owner and head chef Nattaya Vinothai (center) and her kitchen staff cook Thai food using local ingredients at her family’s St. Charles eatery. Originally from Bangkok, Vinothai believes the key to achieving authentic Thai cuisine lies in the balance of flavors and fresh ingredients.

While sitting barefoot at a seaside bar overlooking the placid surf of Phuket Island’s Panwa Beach in Thailand, I gazed at the horizon toward a scattering of pastels cast by the shadows of dusk. Taking an occasional swig from a 21-ounce bottle of Chang (a type of beer), I watched the sun vanish behind a hill topped with a silhouetted statue of Buddha sticking up through the trees. Amidst the sounds of lapping waves and reggae music coming from a bamboo bar with thatched roofing, our waiter (also barefoot) arrived with an onslaught of inexpensive dishes, including the best beef noodle soup and yellow curry I encountered during my 12-day rendezvous in Thailand.

When traveling abroad, you always tend to remember the best meal. A meal that is considerably heightened by the place, the people, the fact that you may never have it or be able to find it anywhere as good, ever again. But that doesn’t stop you from trying.

Upon returning home to your rigorous 9-to-5 reality, any time that same dish graces the pages of a local menu, or if a particular restaurant claims it makes it best, a challenge commences.

Deep down you’re hoping you’ll finally be able to relive that singular food fantasy you experienced that one time, in that faraway place.

After my whirlwind adventure through Thailand last month, I tried to rediscover some semblance of Thailand’s tantalizing tastes and finesse for flavors in the Tri-Cities area, but ultimately realized the search for that same authentic Thai experience in America was unequivocally destined to spur some debate. Not for a lack of quality of the food or absence of experienced Thai chefs in the area – quite the contrary – but primarily because I was looking to relive a single moment on an uneven playing field.

It’s difficult to compare sitting down to a plate of Pad Thai in a suburban strip mall to ordering vegetarian stir fry and Tom Yum soup cooked in an open-air, road-side shack after having trekked through a jungle on the back of an elephant. It’s an unfair battle from the get-go, regardless of how authentically Thai the food tastes.

Thai-born food writer Pitchaya Sudbanthad says in his blog, “Any [Thai dish] I try [in America] is Thai-conceived, but American-born … I’ve learned to live with it, because being inauthentic is a fact of America. To become American means to have been, at some point, uprooted from an ancestral world and reinvented free-style.”

For the most part, what he’s saying is often likely in this great melting-pot of a country. But an integral part to this seemingly “free-style” form of cooking stems from the difference in flavor profiles between people of different nations. Familiarity tends to trump the overly exotic, which is precisely why American-Thai restaurants cater their menus and adapt their dishes to fit in with American-style dining and taste. You have to please the people paying the bill.

But “free-style” cooking or not, Sudbanthad also says in his blog that – according to the Thai government’s foreign office – there were as many as 5,000 Thai food restaurants in the U.S. as of 2011. Quite a number considering Thai-food eateries didn’t start popping up until around the late 1960s.

It seems Thai restaurateurs have been carving out a prominent niche for themselves on the American culinary map for some time now. Results of a survey taken by The Kellogg School of Management and Sasin Institute revealed that Thai food ranked No. 6 when people were asked, “What is your favorite cuisine?” – after Italian, French, Japanese, Chinese and Indian.

Although, with popularity comes competition. When you’re given more choices as to where to satisfy that Thai food craving, the ever-present issue of authenticity arises. With Thai food already containing a confluence of multiple countries’ cuisines to begin with (Chinese, Indian, Burmese, Lao, Cambodian and even Portuguese), while also attempting to be palatable to American taste and style, it becomes more difficult for Americans with no ties to Thailand to be able to decipher great Thai food from good Thai food.

As an American of Irish descent, I’m well aware that one trip to Thailand doesn’t make me an expert on Thai food authenticity. However, just like when you try Pizza Margherita in Napoli or Spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna, once you’re back in the U.S., you may not be frequenting the local Olive Garden for your next pizza or pasta craving.  

To aid in this culinary inquisition, I decided to reach out to the Kane County community for help. I extended a dialogue to the head chefs of two Thai food restaurants that were voted by locals in a Kane County Chronicle survey as having some of the best Thai food in the area.

As an American of Irish descent, I’m well aware that one trip to Thailand doesn’t make me an expert on Thai food authenticity. However, just like when you try Pizza Margherita in Napoli or Spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna, once you’re back in the U.S., you may not be frequenting the local Olive Garden for your next pizza or pasta craving. 

My quest took me to Batavia’s Tusk Thai and St. Charles’ VinoThai to find out what dilemmas chefs encounter when attempting to recreate authentic Thai cuisine on American soil. I quickly learned that there ARE ways to decipher good Thai restaurants from the pack, and some of the missing components to Thai food are a lack of access to native ingredients and herbs as well as supplemental substitutions to accommodate clientele, like swapping salmon for dried shrimp.

The Tusk Thai Head chef Nualprang Lalam has been cooking Thai food for 22 years, serving customers recipes passed down from generation to generation, while also taking liberties with traditional dishes. The family-owned and operated small yet inviting Batavia eatery gets its name from Isaan, the Northeast region of Thailand where the Lalam’s are originally from.

Tusk Thai buzzed with activity on a Friday night; hardly enough room to stand, the waitresses weaved in and around the cramped dining room like a synchronized ballet. Nualprang’s daughter, Taswan Lalam worked the cashier while simultaneously taking orders over the phone and fielding questions from me. Frequently disappearing into the adjacent kitchen, Taswan translated for her mother who was hard at work feverishly trying to get orders out to a packed dining room. The mother and daughter duo agreed that the best dish to judge a good Thai restaurant from the rest, is pad Thai.

In Thailand, I quickly noticed that the pad Thai was less sweet and often had more egg, which some places tend to skimp on. Just like any country, Thai food is regional. So, Thai food as a whole is a pretty broad brush to paint with. Thai food is different and divided among its four regions: Northern, Northeastern, Central, and Southern. American-Thai restaurants, in general, serve food native to the Central region of Thailand (Bangkok area).

This made perfect sense to me, because every corner of the country I ordered the traditional dish, I found it to look and taste differently in each place. And I often found myself preferring the pad Thai in America to the original.

Because pad Thai is the most common and best-selling dish in Thai restaurants, it becomes a solid indicator of the quality of Thai cooking, Taswan said. Apparently, pad Thai also takes a certain sense of culinary prowess to pull off well.

“The [Pad Thai] sauce is very complex because you need ground tamarind which is hard to obtain,” said Taswan translating for her mother. “Palm sugar is hard to obtain for sauce as well. The sugar needs to be caramelized by boiling it down, and if you don’t do it right, you won’t end up with the right consistency,” she said.

Head chef Nattaya Vinothai, of VinoThai restaurant in St. Charles, agreed that Pad Thai is the most popular dish ordered, but it’s nutritionally not her favorite.

“The shredded cabbage and carrots that we add on the side of the plate is supposed to help add to the nutritional value of the dish,” VinoThai said. “Otherwise it is mostly carbs –meat, eggs and noodles – But Americans think it’s a garnish, and they never eat it.

" Thai cooking requires an elite level of balance between four essential components: Sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Another indicator of inauthentic Thai, is if the dishes are too sweet. “Thai food is about balance,” Nattaya said. “Thinking a customer only likes sweet, is misjudging the customer. If the food is well-balanced and fresh, it’s good.”

VinoThai owners, Nattaya from Bangkok and Parinya VinoThai from the southern region of Thailand, came over to the U.S. in the 1980s. They met while working in a Thai restaurant, married and had an American-born son, Pete, 20.

Nattaya said their son actually prefers American-Thai food to the food in Thailand, adding that Pete had difficulty adapting to the bolder and spicier flavors of Northeastern cuisine during a stint as an English Teacher in Thailand; a confession that may allude to authenticity actually hindering a Thai food restaurant’s success rather than helping it.

The family-owned eatery boasts the usage of fresh ingredients for healthier Thai cooking. Although, fresh also means local, which is another key element in the difference of flavor. “There are limits in ingredients, but we try to keep it really close,” said Parinya. “Basil used in Thailand is not available here. So, the basil chicken tastes different than in Thailand,” he said of his favorite Thai dish.

Taswan Lalam of Tusk Thai agrees, saying that herbs, such as Kaffir Lime Leaves, are difficult to get through customs, illegal to grow in the U.S., and often have to be special ordered from Thailand, she said, adding that obtaining herbs for curries is also difficult.

Spices, on the other hand aren’t a problem to obtain because they are dried, Taswan continued. Another minor disparity, between American-Thai and authentic Thai are the portions. This may not be Texas, but when it comes to portion sizes, we still go big or go home with leftovers.

In Thailand, portions to my dismay were most of the time two to three times smaller than in America. Smaller also meant cheaper. For about 65 Baht ($2) I ordered yellow curry with beef while at the aforementioned beachside restaurant (On The Beach) in Phuket. Serving food American-style involves eating in installments, or courses, but in Thailand, people prefer to dine family style with an array of dishes served all at once.

During a recent dinner service, Parinya said, “A family of six came in [to VinoThai] for dinner, and all but one ordered the pad Thai. You would never see this in Thailand, because we order multiple dishes and all share,” he said.

Americans also tend to combine vegetables and meats together in a single dish (which is something Thai restaurants cater to in the U.S.) because they’ve learned that we don’t order multiple dishes. In Thailand, an array of dishes including soup, rice or noodles, vegetables and meat or fish – all plated separately – grace the table all at once.

Thai food in America may always lack that sense of authenticity possibly because of the thousands of miles it took to get it here. Ingredients have to be substituted, and the paying customer tends to win out on what goes on the menu; a truth that may taunt and elicit a dizzying frenzy of disappointment in future dining experiences, further making the hunt for that one perfect meal even more elusive.

If there is anything that has remained the same in the aromatic, sense-provoking flavors of Thai food it’s this: Just as important as the food or the setting of an unforgettable meal, it’s the people too. It’s about the families who spend their lives trying to do justice to the same recipes passed down from generations (while missing all the components to do so). And it’s about the chefs who continue to smile and laugh while passionately toiling in an overcrowded kitchen day in and day out for the chance to bring a bit of home to the tables of Americans, regardless of how close they get to the real thing. 

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