Thai food gains followers locally
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Larb gai at Green Mango in Monroeville looks modest but delivers big. Minced to near pellets, chicken is dressed with garlic, salt, sugar, tart lime and a judicious dousing of fish sauce. Dried chilis or fresh-ground chili paste lend heat while cilantro, Thai basil and cooling mint fold in. The whole thing is tossed with pickled red onions, toasted crushed rice and chopped scallions, then served over greens. Despite the homely plate, it's one of the most popular dishes in Thailand.
Larb is one of many starters at this restaurant owned by Mark and Ling Robinson, where Pad Thai, Tom Yum Goong, satay, spring rolls and a variety of curries fall among best-sellers. Whether it's made with chicken, beef or pork, larb from the Isan region of Thailand near Laos -- known for its dynamic cuisine -- isn't a favorite dish in Pittsburgh. But that's not to say Pittsburgh doesn't know Thai cuisine.
Ask a Pittsburgher where to find the best Thai cooking and you'll get an impassioned response. Fans of Green Mango cite loyalty to the Regent Square location slated to close at the end of September. Mr. Robinson's open-heart surgery five months ago prompted the family to scale back their obligations.
"Two restaurants are too much," said Mrs. Robinson. Dubbed "the high-heeled chef" for her fancy footwear in the kitchen, she wears business attire to work, which, on this day, means a red sheath dress.
Mrs. Robinson says she is excited to expand the flagship in Monroeville, which will include a studio space for demos and parties. "I like to show people how I cook," she said, citing her experience in her family's kitchen in Thailand from when she was a little girl. "I like to teach people how to eat healthy."
Mrs. Robinson has garnered an enthusiastic clientele about the flavors of Thai cuisine here. She's not the only one.
Part of why we're seeing more Asian-owned restaurants is because of a recent influx Asian-born immigrants to Pittsburgh, according to Chris Briem of the University Center for Social and Urban Research at The University of Pittsburgh. "There's a sizable Asian community in town," he wrote in an email of the group that now comprises 5 percent of the city's population.
Thais, of course, are an even smaller subset of Asians lured here by opportunity. "It's easy to get along in Pittsburgh. It's not too expensive. There are plenty of universities," said Mrs. Robinson. "And it's relatively safe."
In many other cities, cooks who aren't Thai are capitalizing on cravings for Thai cuisine. In Pittsburgh, most people running Thai restaurants are from the motherland.
Such is the case with Mrs. Robinson. Having arrived in the city more than 20 years ago as a single mother of a 3-year-old girl, she said she used a Thai grocery store as a base for a reminder of home. Eventually, she met Mr. Robinson (who is half-Vietnamese), who encouraged her to sell Thai cuisine to students in Oakland at a stand before opening their first restaurant in 2008.
In the '80s, Americanized Chinese food was the fast, inexpensive, ethnic go-to. The '90s marked the celebration of sushi, an era during which rolls became fetishized as decadent, colorful bites so ubiquitous they made their way to the prepared food aisles at Giant Eagle. Now we're seeing the rise of Thai cuisine, during which every neighborhood has more than one spot, with signature dishes, dining rooms and deals.
What's also worth noting is this: The average Thai entree is several dollars more expensive than the price of a dish at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
At the Rose Tea Cafe in Squirrel Hill and China Star on the McCandless-Ross border, most entrees without seafood fall below $10. At four local Thai restaurants, menus show entree prices from $11 to $16.
"Thai food is just so fresh," said Michael Johnson, a partner at Pusadee's Garden in Lawrenceville, citing it as a reason Thai is more expensive.
Despite the higher prices, Thai restaurants proliferate in the region. Stylish or charming dining rooms, bold flavor combinations, accessible ingredients, fresh vegetables and herbs are the draw. Americans' curiosity about Thai culture helps.
Nearly 40 Thai restaurants are listed in the region, with Red Orchid in Ross having opened in August and at least two more on the way. One is a noodle house called Noodlehead in the former Typhoon space on Highland Avenue in Shadyside that will open in October. Another will be delivered by a young couple mentored by the Robinsons who will take over the Regent Square spot with another Thai restaurant.
Pittsburghers like Thai so much that it's not uncommon for neighborhoods to accommodate more than one restaurant.
"It's interesting there are two [Thai] restaurants right here in Bloomfield," said Mr. Briem about his neighborhood. "The fact that these two are so close to each other makes me wonder if one was supported by the other since they had to be competing in some sense."
Whether it's among Thais or the wider population, competition for dollars isn't necessarily a deterrent for cooks' collaborating and opening restaurants with overlapping concepts.
"We stand on the shoulders of the fathers before us," said chef de cuisine Adam Howard of Family Meal in Maryland, a Southern-inspired diner from restaurateur and "Top Chef" alum Bryan Voltaggio. He cited working with peers in culinary school and with chefs at restaurants he worked at in New York; Los Angeles; Washington; Charleston, S.C.; and Mumbai. "That is how we learn."
Like the Robinsons mentoring the young couple, the support network among Thai restaurateurs has been strong in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Johnson cites an earlier era when the current owners of Pusadee's Garden, Watcharee Tongdee and her family owned Bangkok Balcony in Squirrel Hill. She sold Bangkok in 2003 to Eileen and Norraset Nareedokmai, who also own Silk Elephant on Murray Avenue.
The Tongdee family has also worked with the owners of Smiling Banana Leaf in Highland Park, the newly opened Red Orchid and Nicky's Thai Kitchen on the North Side. Nicky's owner and head chef Ratthasak "Nick" Insawang "is really doing well in particular," Mr. Johnson said.
Mrs. Robinson believes that helping others open restaurants fuels the city's appreciation for Thai food. "People in Pittsburgh are used to Thai restaurants. They would know if restaurants weren't run by Thais. They know what authentic food tastes like."
And yet Mr. Johnson, who is not Thai, cites a difference between what the Tongdees make for themselves and what's served to customers.
He noted the 1 to 5 heat index, with 5 signifying "Thai-hot." "Thais have grown up with hot food and are concerned it will be too much for those who have not." He also cited the presence of fish sauce as an acquired taste that some customers ask to leave out.
"When someone asks for it to be left out, it totally changes the character of the dish," he said, explaining how most curries contain fish sauce.
The difference in what Thais eat and what's served in restaurants isn't just a factor in Pittsburgh. In a July update on the closure of a Thai place called Lotus of Siam in Manhattan, Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema wrote about the elimination of exotic ingredients such as catfish, jackfruit, beef liver and pork jerky as a "dumbing down" of the menu. "Thai food aficionados ... found the food too tame and too expensive."
Mrs. Robinson of Green Mango disagreed, asserting what she serves is what she has grown up with.
"King chicken on my menu isn't something you'll find at other Thai restaurants because it's a dish my grandparents and my father used to make," she said of the dish seasoned with curry powder, garlic and Green Mango king sauce, sold in-house.
When the family was poor, chicken and certain types of rice were for special occasions. "Whenever they made this recipe, my father would say, 'Tonight, we eat like kings.' "
Whether it's authentic or modified for a Pittsburgh palate, Thai cuisine and its local variations ensure that we'll eat like kings, too.
First Published September 23, 2012 12:00 am