by Marichel Vaught
The cuisine of Thailand is a celebration of bold flavors — sour, salty, bitter, spicy. It has a reverence for local and fresh ingredients, and is a skillful and artful preparation of complex flavors that highlights every component. It has become one of the most popular cuisines in the world, and it is making its presence known locally. Of the 20-plus eateries in Montpelier, three are Thai. Two other Thai restaurants are nearby in Waterbury and Randolph. Although of the same cuisine, each restaurant offers a unique dining experience and a personalized approach to each dish.
Sixteen years ago, Art Jilandharn opened a Thai restaurant in Montpelier hoping to bring something new and different to the area. He succeeded. The reputation of the restaurant grew. Rave reviews from diners touting it as the best Thai food they’d had outside of Thailand drew in more people to check out this exotic cuisine. Jilandharn’s success led him to open restaurants in Morrisville, Waterbury, Middlebury and Burlington. The Middlebury and Morrisville locations have since closed. Currently, Jilandharn and his wife, Claire Puntupatch, are proprietors of three restaurants — Ocha in Waterbury, Thai Dishes in Burlington and Royal Orchid in Montpelier — Royal Orchid being the most consistently successful. Today, people are more familiar with Thai food because many of its most popular dishes have become mainstream — instant pad thai can be found in grocery stores.
Jilandharn studied law in Thailand and came to the United States 30 years ago to pursue a career in that field, but instead found himself working in the food industry, which he enjoyed much more. He landed on the West Coast, first in Los Angeles and then in Portland, Oregon, where he became a server and, later, manager at a Thai restaurant. Eventually, he wanted to start his own business and become his own boss. Jilandharn knew Thai food well. “I’m an eater!” he said as if the decision was a no-brainer. But in Portland, more and more Thai restaurants were popping up. He remembers 10 just in his immediate area, and there would be more. Friends who had a daughter studying in Vermont encouraged Jilandharn to start a restaurant in the capital city, where there were no Thai restaurants to be found. So in 2000, Jilandharn opened the doors to Royal Orchid on Elm Street. Now Montpelier boasts three Thai restaurants and there are many more in the state. But for many people in the Montpelier area, Royal Orchid was their introduction to Thai cuisine.
Jilandharn grew up in the Bangkok area, where the more familiar Thai dishes originated. The recipes he uses are those his family used. Said Jilandharn, “The most important part is the sauce. It’s the first thing done in the kitchen.” The sauce is the base for most of their menu items, such as the stir fries and pad thai.
Royal Orchid’s most popular dishes are their noodles, especially Pad Kee Mao (wide rice noodles stir fried with chili, garlic, broccoli, onion, bell peppers and basil leaves and the diner’s choice of meat, seafood or tofu), the familiar pad thai (rice noodles with chicken and shrimp, egg, tofu, red onion, scallions, ground peanuts, bean sprouts and sliced lime) and Kao soi from northern Thailand (tofu, chicken or pork with egg noodles, coconut milk, and chili paste and garnished with pickled mustard greens, red onions and fried onions, then topped with crispy egg noodles).
Jilandharn would like to add more to Royal Orchid’s menu but hesitates from steering away from what his regulars know and love.
Being in Montpelier for 16 years, the restaurant has become a regular stop for people who work and live in the city. Jilandharn estimates about 80 percent of his customers are people who have been dining there or ordering take-out since it opened. He’s watched kids grow into young adults and has seen new businesses open and close around him.
But don’t be surprised if you see some new appetizers. Thai cuisine is evolving and there is much more to offer than noodles and pad thai. And if Jilandharn has been doing things right the past decade and a half, whatever comes out of his kitchen will not disappoint.
Royal Orchid is located at 38 Elm St. and is open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner; Saturdays 12:30 to 9 p.m.; Sundays 2 to 9 p.m. See their menu at royalorchidthaivt.com
In 2009, a food cart appeared in downtown Montpelier and with it, that unmistakable tangy aroma of Southeast Asian cooking. This was Wilaiwan’s, owned and operated by Wilaiwan “Dang” and Tim Azarian. They wanted to replicate the Thai street food scene for Montpelierites, but eventually it became a challenge to cook meals in a small space and quickly serve customers in the growing lunch line, not to mention having to close the cart during the unpredictable winter months. So in 2012, the couple upgraded to an indoor space on State Street, which became Wilaiwan’s Kitchen. “We still wanted something small, a hole in the wall,” said Azarian. The Azarians continue to cater only to the weekday lunch crowd and there are still growing lines, but the lines move somewhat more quickly, and patience is ultimately rewarded with one of Wilaiwan’s scrumptious offerings. Wilaiwan’s Kitchen has a rotating menu and diners can choose from three items each week. They rotate the same 26 or 27 dishes they’ve been making since their cart days, all of which they enjoy eating themselves.
The recipes are Dang’s and are mostly from the northeastern, or Isan, region of Thailand. Azarian is Vermont born and raised, and after getting the traveling bug, he lived in Thailand for about 12 years, where he met Dang. The plan was to have Dang just visit Vermont, but the visit turned into a permanent move when the couple married and started raising a family.
Their enthusiasm for making this food is evident. “I put my heart into this, when I make something,” said Dang. “I do my best and I want people to enjoy the food.” Dang, who wants to share the food she loves and what she grew up eating, describes their menu as versions of what she and her husband like. There are even different taste preferences between the two. If Dang is at the helm, the dishes are less spicy to suit her palate. When Azarian is the cook, the dishes have more kick. They certainly do not shy away from bold flavors. After all, bold flavors are what Thai food is all about.
The day The Bridge visited Wilaiwan’s Kitchen, the choices of the week were Kana Nua (stir-fried beef with Asian broccoli greens, peppers, chili and garlic), Yam Moo Goong Krob (crispy pork and shrimp with onions, peppers, and cilantro in a lime and chili dressing) and Tom Kha Gai (chicken soup in a base of coconut milk and tamarind with mushrooms, chili and kaffir lime). There was already a line at the counter just shy of 11 am. An hour later that line would begin to snake out the door and onto the sidewalk. As a passerby, you just knew something good was going on in there. “You don’t need a plane ticket to visit Thailand!” said Dang smiling brightly. Lines of people are indicative of a want or need for what’s at the end. The Azarians are making sure that when you get inside, it’s as authentic and fresh as can be. But this takes some extra time and they ask their customers to continue being patient. For the most part, customers are enthusiastic and not irritable, chatting with one another or just entranced by the Azarians’ choreography in the kitchen.
Wilaiwan’s Kitchen only uses beef from Black River Farm. They use ingredients that come as close as possible to what is used in Thailand. And for that, the couple travels to Boston regularly. Their restaurant hours are limited, but the Azarians have already worked tirelessly before the first customer comes through the door. They prep for 5 to 6 hours before opening. Weekends are dedicated to shopping and prepping. Everything is made fresh when the customers place their order, so all the components have to be ready. This is fast food at a superior level. “We want to keep the food’s integrity while trying to make it quick,” said Azarian.
They’ve hired a cashier so they can continue to work non-stop at the stoves. They’ve hired clean-up help once the doors close at 2 p.m. so they can have family time before starting the process all over again. Family time is the reason why they never want to grow bigger and incur longer hours or the need for wait staff. “We’ll keep doing this until we stop caring,” said Azarian. Lucky for us, they care a lot.
Wilaiwan’s Kitchen is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. They are located at 34 State St. and accept cash or checks only.
Montpelier’s youngest Thai restaurant is Pho Thai, located on Main Steet. They like to describe their menu as Thai fusion. As their name implies, they have pho — a Vietnamese noodle soup of aromatic broth, herbs, rice noodles and meat or seafood. They also have soups with Japanese udon noodles, curries, stir-fries, dumplings, traditional Thai dishes such as Tom Kha, larb and more. And they are the only eatery in Montpelier with boba, or bubble tea, on the menu.
Encouraged by friends, Sam Thongjunthoug made the move to Vermont from Los Angeles in 2008. He worked in the tech field while planning and finding a location for the restaurant, and in May 2015, Thongjunthoug and his wife, Nok, opened the doors to Pho Thai. Nok, of both Thai and Vietnamese descent, cooks all the dishes according to the ways her mother made them. Thongjunthoug mostly greets the customers and assists in the kitchen.
One of the first things you notice when you walk in is how welcoming and enthusiastic Thongjunthoug is. He’s happy you’re there and points to all the delicious menu items available. There are also pictures displayed to make your decision even more challenging if you’ve walked in with a rumbling tummy.
Unlike the dishes at many of the other Thai restaurants, the food at Pho Thai is not made to be spicy, unless the customer asks for it to be so. Upon ordering from the counter, you can choose to dine in or take-out.
“Everything is made fresh every day. Nothing is frozen,” said Thongjunthoug. They use local ingredients when they can. The cilantro, green onions and cucumbers typically come from nearby farms. For specialty or hard-to-find ingredients, he goes to Boston or New York.
The bold sign exclaiming ‘noodle shop’ on Pho Thai’s window is what drew Sherry Fortner in on a Wednesday afternoon. Fortner, from Washington State, was passing through town on her way to a retreat in Greensboro. After savoring a noodle dish and a Thai iced tea she said, “I would definitely come back. Everything was so good!”
Then Terry Moore, another first-time customer, came in because the restaurant was highly recommended by co-workers. Moore, a traveling nurse, said she’s not an adventurous eater and confessed, “I’m a meat-and-potatoes girl who grew up in Boston.” Moore who had never had Thai or Vietnamese food before went with the BBQ roast pork pho. It was a hit with her. She said she is definitely coming back again and can’t wait to try the other items on the menu board.
Governor Peter Shumlin and wife Katie have become regular customers. First Katie came in frequently. After the governor tried it, he’s come back several times. Photos of Thongjunthoug with the governor adorn some of the walls in the restaurant. “He likes the #2 with beef (pho with a darker broth),” said Thongjunthoug proudly.
Just as Thongjunthoug is enthusiastic about welcoming customers, he is equally fervent about making sure to say “Thank You” and showing his gratitude to every customer as they head out the door.
“You know, I do my best. We do our best. People in Montpelier can be hard to please. And everyone in Montpelier makes good food. You have to do it right,” said Thongjunthoug. And clearly, they do.
Pho Thai is located at 54 Main St. and is open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.
You might expect the cuisine in a restaurant inside the historic Victorian Kimball House in Randolph to be classic American or French fine dining. But what you will find is Saap, a casual Thai restaurant that wants to expand on what you think you already know about Thai food. Steve and Rung Morgan opened Saap in April 2015, a business that was a fusion of their backgrounds. Steve worked in the food service industry at Sugarbush, National Life, NECI and, most recently, Gifford Medical Center. He knows the preferences of Vermont diners and what works culinarily in the region. You’ll see him mostly working the front of the house, greeting and serving guests, and guiding diners through the menu. His wife, Rung, grew up in the Phu Wiang district of Thailand, three and a half hours from the Laotian border. She grew up eating and cooking food from the northeastern region and has a clear understanding of its flavor profile. Together, they are pushing the flavor boundaries and introducing even repeat customers to new Thai dishes. Morgan wanted people to know that there is more to Thai cuisine than pad thai and spring rolls. In fact, Rung had never cooked some of the more popular Thai meals until coming to the United States two years ago. “Thai food is a delicate balance of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy and there’s also careful attention to texture,” said Morgan. He stresses the abundance of Thai cuisine’s signature fermented essence.
The flavors in every dish are intentional. So when an ingredient is swapped for purposes of food allergies or personal preferences, it changes how the dish should taste. That’s not to say that Saap doesn’t do that. They are, of course, accommodating. It just shows how meticulous they are about perfecting the flavors so that it is as close as possible to how it is prepared in Thailand. Their passion is for the diner to have a new experience. “We want to see people come into the restaurant with a curious mind and open palate,” said Steve. Saap does carry the familiar curries and noodle dishes, but they encourage customers to try something they haven’t had before.
Sticky rice is a common component in Thai cuisine. This is exemplified in their Muu Dad Deaw. The sticky rice is used as a vehicle for eating the strips of marinated then deep-fried pork shoulder. The customers “play with their food” as they take a portion of the rice and flatten it to create a mini rice wrap to hold the meat. The dish is served with a sweet and sour tamarind dipping sauce. The marriage and balance of flavors shines in their Khao Pad Nahm Liap with the unlikely pairing of cashews and olives among red onion, chili and jasmine rice. These are just two examples of the ways Saap is presenting bolder Thai flavors.
Saap means “delicious” in Isan, Thailand’s largest region. Dining there is an adventure for the taste buds that excites and delights and makes the customer want to try even more.
Saap is located at 50 Randolph Ave. in Randolph. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. More information can be found on their website: saaprestaurant.com.