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We asked for chicken with the mustard-colored massam curry. Potatoes create a hearty, thick, stew in this curry. Made with tamarind, cinnamon, fish sauce, and coconut milk, it is less tangy than the panang and rounder on the tongue. The green curry with plump, succulent shrimp is mildly spicy, smooth, and silken. Thai basil gives it a floral aroma and an anise flavor. Kaffir lime adds a lemony scent. Instead of the chili pepper used to make red curry paste, fresh green peppers are utilized, giving it a lime-green color. Lastly, we requested pork with the red curry. Made with shrimp paste, it is zesty, fiery, and sweet. To contrast the thick slabs of tender pork, crunchy red peppers, bamboo shoots, and onions swimming in the sauce contribute to a balanced texture.
Rabenda seeks customer input to create authentic, yet personalized fare. Although her menu reflects the dishes she grew up cooking to feed her family, she is willing to change any recipe to suit a patron’s needs. Not afraid of dietary restrictions like gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegetarian, she informed me that she uses Splenda for diabetic customers. In addition to her flexibility, Chira churns out variations of the same dish. After introducing Pad Thai, one of Thailand’s national foods, to her audience, she expanded her menu to include Woon Sen Pad Thai (made with glass noodles) and Senyai Pad Thai (made with wide noodles).
One of northeast Thailand’s most popular dishes is Som Tam, eaten both on its own and often as an accompaniment to grilled meat. Served at room temperature, the star of the salad is very thinly grated ribbons of green, somewhat chewy papaya. Literally meaning “pounded sour,” chili, garlic, lime, and fish sauce are pounded with a mortar and pestle to create a spicy and sour taste sensation. Dried shrimp give it brine. Som Tom integrates the four main tastes of Thai cooking: piquant chili, salty fish sauce, sugar, and tangy lime. Crunchy green beans, carrots, and tomatoes showcase fresh ingredients often used in Thai cooking. In a country that’s hot climate rivals the heat of their food, eating Som Tam is a healthy, refreshing way to cool down. Another favorite is Tom Yum Goong, a steaming hot soup that also incorporates many distinct Thai flavors. Gingery galangal and flowery lime leaves, as well as shrimp and vegetables, add depth to a sinus-clearing, hot and sour lemongrass broth.
Some of Sukhothai’s standout entrees include the specialty Ped Yang, a sinfully crispy-skinned duck served with a rich, thick “modified” hoisin (the chef adds sugar and vinegar) atop crunchy, deep fried collard greens. Twice cooked beef, accompanied by sticky rice and Som Tom, is marinated in a tangy teriyaki yielding an intensely rich flavor. Chicken satay and fish cakes are two appetizers commonly found in Bangkok’s endless street vendors.
The menu is vast and diverse, including a wide selection of noodle, rice, vegetable, fish, and meat dishes. Desserts include a rather gluttonous version of fried ice cream, a big enough portion to satiate several people. There are also several versions of fried bananas and ice cream flavors ranging from Thai tea to coconut to green tea. During the summer, they serve fresh mango on top of glutinous sticky rice and topped with silken coconut cream.
When Rabenda is not running her kitchen, she is at the head of the class. A year ago, after a customer told her, “We know your cooking and we hope one day we will be able to cook like you,” she decided to start teaching Sukhothai’s dishes. Her weekly Monday night class is comprised primarily of her regulars whom she instructs in small groups in Sukhothai’s kitchen.
Between running the restaurant and teaching, Rabenda is keeping busy. Yet she says she never hesitates to take a moment to step aside from her work to reflect on her philosophy: “Bottom line—you have to have a passion. You have to love what you do, particularly the food. I love everything I put on the table.”
Sukhothai is open for lunch and dinner. During lunch, appetizers and salads range from $2.59 to $5.99 and entrees are all $8.95. Dinner appetizers range from $4.99 to $9.99, soups and salads $3.99 to $16.95, entrées $11.95 to $24.95, and desserts from $3.50 to $5.95. Wines by the glass run $7 to $8 and are offered by the bottle from $24 to $38. Small-production domestic beers and imported Thai beers are also served.