- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- TAKE THAI : Thai Palace has settled comfortably into its remodeled location, serving up delicious cuisine to all visitors.
# Whenever I find a dish I love, its flavors haunt me until I'm irresistibly drawn back to the restaurant to eat it again. I know that every foodie understands the compulsion to return to a certain restaurant for a special dish. I'm just glad it doesn't happen that often. The last time I was hooked, it was on barbecued chicken at a Thai restaurant. With every order I feasted on it like a feral cat and always walked away licking my chops over its succulent texture and addictive flavors.
I returned often for a fix, but as with all addiction stories this one doesn't end pretty. During my last meal there, the chicken looked the same but I knew at first bite that extraordinary chef was gone. Oh, they claimed they were still using her recipe but the heart and soul of that amazing chicken dinner was long vanished. My sigh of despair could be heard across the county. Despite my fears, it didn't take long to find satisfaction elsewhere.
I discovered Thai Palace.
What's surprising is that no one told me about this terrific little spot, though it was difficult to see in that alley when the Court Street Center was still a parking lot. When I visited the remodeled restaurant which had been closed six months for earthquake retrofitting I realized I'd never noticed the place. It had only been there eight years. When I finally visited two months ago, I met co-owner Teerapan "Tee-Tee" Teeratarkul, who introduced me to his palace with all of the enthusiasm of a proud father.
Even though I'd had lunch at home, Tee-Tee insisted that I sample one of their signature appetizers: Meaing kum. I was served a plate of farm-fresh spinach leaves with another sectioned plate of toppings that included toasted coconut, peanuts, ginger, red onion, lime segments, and a special sweet, tart, and spicy house sauce. He instructed me to pile a little of each or more, as I preferred on a spinach leaf (like a wrap) and pop it in my mouth. Although I wasn't hungry, I was delighted by the juxtaposition of flavors and textures. It was quite delicious. It's now my first choice in appetizers when I dine there.
The metamorphosis of Thai Palace restaurant is impressive whether you're new to the eatery or a regular customer. The beautifully remodeled restaurant is filled with original art, a hand-painted bar, two bubbling fountains, and the rainbow-hued, hand-painted mirrors that illuminate the main dining room. Tee-Tee explained that everything was shipped to San Luis Obispo from Thailand to create an authentic setting. It's a colorful and yet serene scene befitting the King of Thailand, whom Tee-Tee honors with beautiful photographs in the dining room.
The restaurant is owned by the Teeratarkul family, who bought it in 1999. Tee-Tee's mother, Taungpetch Teeratarkul, became the chef. She started cooking professionally when she owned a restaurant in Pichit, Thailand. Tee-Tee recalled working there when he was only six years old. Everyone in the family helped out including the children who worked after school during the busy dinner hours. He said that his parents believed the responsibility taught the children good work ethics. After the family purchased Thai Palace, Taungpetch managed the restaurant with her two sons, Kol and Tee-Tee, and Judy Hengcharoen. Three years ago, Taungpetch retired to fulfill her dream of becoming a Buddhist nun, leaving the business in the capable hands of her family.
"We love the restaurant business. Judy and I always wanted to start a restaurant from scratch," Tee-Tee remembered.
In 2001, they realized their dream of opening a brand new restaurant with Basil in Paso Robles. Tee-Tee and Judy are also responsible for the gorgeous transformation of Thai Palace.
"Judy designed the beautiful interior decor," Tee-Tee noted.
While closed, they dedicated themselves to redesigning the dining room and bar to create the serene atmosphere that can be enjoyed in each of the dining areas. Tee-Tee admitted that it was hard work, but it was a labor of love. The new menu cover shows photos of the restaurant as it was compared to the illustrious new Thai Palace.
"Judy is a very good cook and most of our dishes are her recipes and her style, which are all made from scratch," Tee-Tee said.
Before re-opening, they hired a new chef who cooked professionally in Bangkok for 20 years. Now he leads the original team of cooks who stayed onboard the six months the shop was closed for remodeling. Although each kitchen has its own team of cooks, they move between restaurants whenever one requires extra help during busy times.
I've always loved Thailand's cuisine, which is built around a balance of the five fundamental flavors: hot (spicy), sour, sweet, salty, and bitter all of which may be found in one complex dish or throughout a multi-course meal. Both the lunch and dinner menus start with appetizers, with a full list of curries, stir-fries, or noodle and rice dishes that offer a choice of chicken, pork, seafood, tofu, or mock duck. The menu also devotes a section to Thai Palace favorites.
"Thai cuisine is about people, culture, and food. To fully enjoy a meal, you need good company," Tee-Tee concluded. "We consider each of our restaurants a place for families it's our life and we love doing this."
The efficient staff provides a welcoming reception for everyone, whether you're a family with children, a student, or a single diner. Service is always prompt and they accommodate requests. You can count on Thai Palace to always provide a delicious meal that's quite reasonably priced.
I've enjoyed all of the new dishes I've had so far. The Param of steamed spinach with delectable curry peanut sauce was great with chicken. We cleaned the plate when we tried the stir-fry of chicken and fresh vegetables in garlic sauce. And I always appreciate the crisp salad with sweet/tart dressing and the fresh chunks of pineapple on each plate. The barbecued chicken, my only disappointment, was dry, although it was flavorful. But I still can't find the addictive chicken I described anywhere.
The small wine list and wines-by-the-glass are all reasonably priced and appropriate for the cuisine. Last visit, I fell in love with something new which was recommended by my personable waiter: lightly spiced green curry with fresh bell peppers, carrots, and eggplant, which I ordered with calamari. I'll be back for more.
I've found a bit of the heart and soul of Tee-Tee and Judy in everything I've experienced at Thai Palace.
Reach New Times' Cuisine columnist at Kathy@GrapevineRadio.net.