By Yun Chee Chan
While Odysseus spent ten years on a journey returning home from Troy, Toon, an old immigrant from Thailand, chose the faster route and built a food empire in New York City. Toon left Thailand at a very young age and adopted American life easily, but as time went by, she realized something was still missing. Toon channeled her memories into different Thai dishes containing the taste of her mother’s cooking and the memories of her childhood. Today, Toon owns four Thai restaurants in the city. Located on Park Avenue between 29th and 30th, the newest restaurant provides a warm and cozy atmosphere dedicated to the local community. Toon’s Thai Café decor consists of Western-style bricks and wood like most modern Thai restaurants, but still retains its unique personality: the swirly wood ceiling, which most of the customers consider as an homage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, Museum, is a welcoming, affectionate abstract of the Thai Ocean.
The unique taste of traditional Thai cuisine comes from lemongrass, garlic, chili, sweet basil and nampla (fish sauce). As noted by Toon, Thai food sophisticatedly combines spicy, sour, sweet and salty flavors in each dish. Although Toon left Thailand 30 years ago, she still remembers how her Chinese mother combined Thai spices with authentic Chinese food, creating a real exotic treat. Of her path, she states: “I was always as good of a cook as my mother, but the idea of being a chef never appeared in my mind. After 10 years in New York, my brother and I decided to go back to Thailand for good. There I met a fortune teller who told me, ‘your brother will remain in Thailand while you will go back to where you belong and start your own business.’ I told her it would be impossible but she simply responded: when the fortune comes, you will be ready”. After moving to New York, Toon was motivated by her American friends and named the restaurant with the Thai name she once hated. Until now, Toon still believes that she is driven by a mystical force in discovering her true nature. Toon attributes the delicacy of Thai food to Chinese food and some of the indigenous characteristics of Vietnamese and Cambodian food. Karee Puff, one of their best sellers, is a delicate puff pastry appetizer. Each puff is stuffed with ground chicken, potatoes, onions and an original family recipe seasoning. The dish embodies the hybrid identity of Thai food as well as the collective wisdom of Southeast Asian nations. One could start this journey with Yum Duck Salad, Beef Salad, or Karee Puff.
For the next indulgence, Pad Thai is the one authentic Thai dish you cannot miss and can be ordered with the choice of chicken, beef, or pork. Toon adds a more delicate flavor to Pad Thai with bean sprout and firm tofu, adding the ingredients one at a time to ensure bold and fresh flavors. Pad Thai will definitely wake up your taste buds in the cold winter. Another main entrée, Hobo Noodles, is also highly recommended by Toon. Hobo noodles are made up of broad rice noodles, sautéed with a special, mouth-watering spicy sauce. This dish guarantees a head-to-toe adventure!
The mystical experience of Toon’s Thai Cafe echoes the exotic food of Thailand. Toon’s Thai Cafe easily provides, with delicious meals, a journey to Thai culture or a journey of “return” to a “new home.”
Finally, in the Spring of 2010, Toon will join with her original business partner, Tom Rolsten, to open an American comfort food and Thai fusion restaurant on W. 51st street and Broadway in Times Square.