In April, 2005, Chira and Ray Rabenda opened Sukhothai. The restaurant was packed on the day they opened, and they are filling tables almost three years later. On my visits to the restaurant, the tables were brimming with young couples, families, and groups of friends. Sukhothai, one of the few Thai restaurants in the region, fulfills Rabenda’s goal to bring Thai culture and “tasty, well presented” food to the area.
Growing up in northeast Thailand, Rabenda learned to cook from her mother, whom she recognizes as her greatest culinary influence: “She taught me well. She always encouraged me. My parents worked hard and I learned from them.” Rabenda often had to cook for her large family (she is the second of 11 children), on a remarkably small budget. As Thai cooking tends to be based more on oral tradition than written history, she learned cooking secrets from her mother: techniques passed down from generation to generation that cannot be found in any cookbook.
While Rabenda’s mother tended to her large brood, her father supported the family financially, owning a cinema and dubbing foreign films into Thai. Parlaying language skills learned from her father, Chef Rabenda entered and won a contest in Bangkok doing voiceover narration. Later, she attended Griffith University in Australia where she studied hotel management, earning a master’s degree.
Three days before September 11, 2001, Rabenda moved to New York City. Shortly thereafter, she met Ray, a Poughkeepsie native, and moved to the Hudson Valley. Having worked in the hotel industry for 12 years, the recent newlywed questioned her career goals. While never having worked as a chef, she had cooked for her large family and her friends, who frequently sampled her culinary creations and encouraged her culinary ambitions. She relished the challenge and the Rabendas set out to actualize their vision for a Thai restaurant. They settled on Beacon, a city poised for growth as it emerged from the Hudson Valley’s post-industrial doldrums.
Educating the public about her culture and cuisine is a fundamental goal for Rabenda, which goes hand in hand with pleasing her patrons. In fact, when the Rabendas purchased their restaurant property, they struggled to agree on a name. Built in 1818 and formerly an opera house, a grocery store, and most recently a bar, they took note of the exposed brick walls and the wheels of inspiration began turning. He believed “Bangkok Station” an appropriate moniker due to the nearby train tracks. She was inclined toward “Sukhothai,” the capital of the ancient Thai kingdom, also meaning “Dawn of Happiness.” To the budding restaurateur, the brick recalled the resplendent architecture of the historic city-state. As passersby approached their storefront during renovation, they sought the opinion of the general public. Eighty percent liked Chira’s choice. Ultimately yielding to the input of the residents, the couple agreed on the name.
The Rabendas designed their 49-seat dining room to have a warm, open feel. The high ceiling is peppered with mini-chandeliers and tropical-inspired ceiling fans and chili red walls contrast the nude brick. Saloon-style kitchen doors constantly swing open, servers coming and going, revealing a glimpse of the cooks in action.
Rabenda’s food represents what you would find in central Thailand, specifically in Bangkok. Traditional food of the region consists of unadorned dishes, usually rice served with vegetables or fish. However, in the dynamic city of Bangkok, an eater can experience fare from all regions of Thailand. The city is a culinary melting pot of Thai regional styles.
Sukhothai’s menu mirrors Bangkok cuisine, offering a potpourri of traditional Thai meals and street food, as well as an array of specialty dishes. Furthermore, unlike French cooking, for example, which tends to be precise and technical (and serves as the basis for formal culinary training in Europe and the US), Thai cooks formulate their food based on personal taste, and an inclination toward a variety of flavor combinations. Five key flavors dominate Thai cooking: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and hot. Different uses of these basic flavors produce a rainbow of tastes and aromas.
All dishes are spiced to taste so that each individual can specify a preferred level of heat. Rabenda’s gastronomical passion is curry, so we asked for hot, hot heat with ours. The curry sampler is served in four petite bowls, providing the opportunity to compare and contrast flavors and allow the diner to pick proteins to accompany the curries. All four curries are made with coconut milk, giving them a creamy, rich, slightly sweet aroma and flavor. The panang is traditionally made with thin strips of beef. Rabenda’s is accented with green beans and red bell pepper. Fish sauce gives it a sour tang. This curry is simultaneously salty, sweet, and sour, a typical Thai flavor profile.