I just love a good restaurant success story. The Bovornthat Family, originally from Thailand, came to the United States to study. Somnuk, the matriarch, was a restaurant owner in Thailand. When her daughter, Tripitra (Jann) fell in love with her future husband, the entire family moved to Florida.
Seven years and two children later, the Bovornthats found another love — Hendersonville. So, in December 2007, Thai Spice opened its doors, with Somnuk as head chef. Jann’s husband, Nopparat, acts as sous chef and Jann makes sure that the guests are happy.
Six of us went to Thai Spice for dinner recently and had a wonderful evening. My friends know that I usually require my dining companions to share their food with me. Conveniently, “family style” sharing of dishes is the norm in Thai eateries.
Two of us started off with the restaurant’s signature drink, the “Green-tini.” Made with Zen Green Tea Liquor, it was not-too-sweet, very limey, and icy cold. So good, in fact, we both had another. The rest chose from a nice little wine list and another had her favorite, Thai Iced Coffee, brewed from strong Thai coffee beans and laced with brown sugar, honey and milk. Yum. Also available is a wonderful cold Diamond Sake, which plays beautifully with hot and spicy flavors. Jann explains, “Cold sake is traditionally served with the main course to cool and sooth the tongue.” Sake it to me, baby!
The menu is large, almost daunting. Fortunately, our server, Daniel (who offered us a taste of the Zen liquor to make sure we would enjoy the Green-tini before ordering it) knew the menu well and was happy to answer our questions. Two specials that night, Soft Shell Crab and Crispy Red Snapper, sounded like winners. We also tried the Shrimp Volcano (a crisply fried shrimp over vegetables with red chili sauce), Pad Thai with crispy fried tofu and a steamed tofu with green curry.
The red snapper came whole, complete with eyes looking balefully around the table. De-boned for easier eating, the kitchen cuts through the bottom and top so that the lightly breaded, quickly fried fish sits upright on the plate. My friend, usually a moderate eater, devoured him, fin to tail.
The highlight of the evening was the Pad Thai with fried tofu. Turns out that Somnuk won a first prize award for her Pad Thai at the Thai Songkran Festival in Florida. Jann says that there are two dishes which really indicate the skill of a true Thai chef: Crispy Noodle (Mee Krob) and Pad Thai. In the case of Pad Thai, the noodles must be soaked to the perfect soft/chewy consistency (think al dente), then slowly stir fried with the sauce until it soaks into the noodle completely. Easier said than done.
For the Crispy Noodle, which is an appetizer before the main meal, noodles are cooked in a sauce flavored with orange juice, herbs and spices and is meant to “make the tongue ready for the main course.” The trick here is that the sauce must be just the right consistency to pull the fried noodles together. Both dishes must display the four elements of flavor balance…sweet, spicy, salty and sour.
According to Jann, Thai Spice goes organic whenever possible. Soup broths are made daily, all vegetables are fresh and no MSG is used. The menu also caters to a vegetarian clientele and Jann has customers who request gluten and wheat free dishes. For the no-carb crowd, clear noodles are the clear choice.
When the restaurant first opened, Jann admits that the kitchen played it safe with spice and heat. It was soon apparent, however, that Hendersonville likes it hot. Now, you can order from a wide range of heat levels (there is actually a Bold Life Hot that is rumored to take the top of your head off). The menu indicates dishes that are inherently spicy, but most of these can be customized.
Jann’s mother looks upon the restaurant as her own family kitchen; she has even been known to ask a customer, “Why didn’t you eat your broccoli?” Ever seen a grown man squirm? Go clean your plate at Thai Spice.