Sudajit Chubthaisong grew up in the countryside in northeastern Thailand, where, she says, her family ate the fresh vegetables they grew in their garden, as well as “whatever we could find in the woods, such as mushrooms, leaves, or flowers.” Along with her sister, chef May Chubthaisong, and business partners Matthew Chi and Charles Roper, she carries the memory of that culinary immediacy into her latest venture, Boon Choo Thai Express in Flat Rock, where she is co-owner and manager.
Unlike their restaurant in Hendersonville, Thai Spice, which has an evening-out kind of ambience, Boon Choo is small and bright, efficient and contemporary, painted in pale shades with polished metallic accents and greenery. “Boon Choo” means “Good Karma,” and the clean, airy interior fits the name exactly. It also squares with the rise of ethnic “street food,” popularized last decade at the regional Indian restaurant Chai Pani, now a small chain.
The street-food atmosphere falls somewhere between the two approaches that have generally dominated American Asian restaurants: fabric tablecloths and leisurely service on the one hand, and deep-fried fast takeout on the other. Street food is meant to be served quickly and easily, yes, but a bustling freshness and high authenticity are the main ingredients of the movement. (Boon Choo specializes in the street food of Thailand’s central and northeastern regions.)
But enough about trends. Boon Choo’s food, too, is wide awake: spirited, on point, and generously portioned. There’s no small-plate foolishness: servings come in two sizes — “hungry” and “really hungry.”
“My family members grew up in the kitchen,” notes Sudajit. “We learned how to cook when we were really young.” May studied at a high-end culinary school in Thailand that cooked for the country’s royals before operating a long-time Thai restaurant in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Her dishes at Boon Choo are marvelously subtle, with a lingering effect. Even a choice of high heat — diners get to pick from a spiciness level of 1-5 for the noodle, stir-fry, and curry entrées — can’t interfere with the masterful balance of flavors. On the appetizer menu, the rolls predominate. Fresh Rolls are an exquisite mix of chicken, shrimp, cilantro, red onion, mint, green papaya, carrot, and Thai basil wrapped in ultra-delicate rice paper, all the smooth flavors balanced by a tangy brown sauce with a summit of crushed peanuts. Fusion enters the picture with the Chicken Cheese Spring Rolls, where Mozzarella and American cheese make an appearance, along with an excellent homemade chili sauce that’s also served with the Calamari rings, Edamame, and other starters.
The rest of the menu is firmly traditional. To name three standouts among many, the Eggplant Stir Fry is redolent with garlic and fresh Thai basil, the Red Curry is jazzed with fresh ginger root, and the Pad Thai — the house dish of every Thai restaurant — is a flat-out delight, steeped in what the restaurateurs call “old school” sweet-and-sour sauce, plus scallions, bean sprouts, and peanuts. In other eateries, Pad Thai can come off as too bland, especially if the diner opts out of the high-spice option, but even a level “2” on Boon Choo’s Pad Thai offers copious flavor. Traditional Thai salads such as Larb and Beef Narm Tok (ground herbed chicken and grilled steak, respectively, served over romaine lettuce) are radiant choices for the carb-free crowd, and the Mango Sticky Rice for dessert, richly sweet with coconut milk, is an emotional experience.
Similar restaurants in Western North Carolina serve their street food actually on the street (i.e., out of a food truck) or in fashionable downtown locales. But Boon Choo is tucked into a long brick strip mall just off I-26 on Upward Road. This location benefits the business logistically, says Sudajit: “The area has so many things going on around it … [Blue Ridge Community College] is here, plus we are so close to the hotels on exit 53 and residential [neighborhoods],” she says.
It also increases the place’s insider appeal. Despite the convenience, the strip mall’s low-profile, almost anonymous vibe makes Boon Choo feel like a particularly delicious secret.
Boon Choo Thai Express (576 Upward Road, #1, in Flat Rock) is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11am-3pm and from 4:30-9pm. See boonchoothai.com or Boon Choo Thai on Facebook for more information. 828-435-9077.