Tale of Two Thais


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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, October 9, 2009

The only thing standing between Taste of Thai and Chada Thai Cuisine is a little barber shop. But as you look straight on at these block-mates, they might as well be on top of each other. Taste of Thai was first. Its owner is Vitavat Lumpongpoung – lucky for us, he goes by Victor. And Victor got a little anxious when, in less than a year, Chada Thai Cuisine opened right next door.

“I think it’s kind of strange, you know,” says Victor. “About two or three blocks away it might be different, but this one is very close.”


            Close counts

What was Chada’s first owner thinking? According to Victor the hope was for a mini Thai Town like in Los Angeles, where dozens of Thai restaurants are fused along a Hollywood Boulevard mile. Only problem is, LA has the largest Thai population outside Thailand.

“Right here is not LA, it’s Sacramento,” says Victor, without irony. “And this is Broadway, you know. Not a lot of Thai people.”

Luckily for both restaurants, there ARE a lot of Thai food lovers on Broadway. And in street lingo, you’re either a fan of the one on the left -- or the one on the right. One random customer stopped to talk with us.

“I like Taste of Thai, the one on the left.”

A woman approached and said, “I like the right one.”

Why?

 “I feel very comfortable there. It’s light and breezy."

            
            Everyone's an expert
           
But one man on Broadway expressed that which perplexes customers at both restaurants.

“I’ve always wondered how they compete next door.”

Everyone does. Dueling sidewalk signs aren’t much help. They both say Authentic. Thai. Cuisine.

What can you do but become a self-made expert. There’s the observant-emotional expert.

            “I enjoy Thai food. I think it has sort of a floral quality. It tastes sort of exotic to me. And it makes me feel sophisticated when I eat it.”

There’s the compulsive researcher expert.           

“If you look on Google, I think it has a 4-star out of five.”

And there’s the willing-to-change-their-minds experts.

“We’ve always thought that was interesting that you have two side by side,” said a young father of two small children in a double stroller. We were always told and we always believed that Taste of Thai was the better of the two. And, it always seems more crowded. We went there consistently. And, then we finally decided to try Chada Thai and were bowled over by it and we haven’t gone back to Taste of Thai since. We like Chada Thai better. “

            Well, that settles it. Or does it?

               And they're different how ...?
           
There are many levels of connections at a restaurant. Understanding the background of Taste of Thai and Chada Thai may explain why you like what you like. Taste of Thai’s owner, is from Thailand’s northeast region near Laos. In college, he studied accounting. When he came to America, he cooked in his sister’s Thai restaurant in Portland, and found his calling.

“I love to do the restaurant business,” Victor said quietly. “I love to cook.”

He opened Taste of Thai in the aftermath of 9/11.  Nine months later, along came Chada. It got off to a shaky start. In three years, Chada was sold. The buyer  -- and current owner -- was a Mien translator working a second job as one of the waiters!

 He’s Chee Saechao. As a result of the Vietnam War, Saechao fled Laos for Thailand’s far north city of Chiang Rai, famous for elephants and hill tribes. He followed Mien cousins to Sacramento. This is Saechao’s first restaurant, but he and his family, including three daughters who wait tables, turned Chada around.

            “Everyday I get good customer to support even I don’t have good parking,” said Saechao, with utter humility. “Whenever they hungry they come to Chada Thai to support my family.” He adds, unnecessarily but habitually: “Thank you.”

            Saechao’s daughter Nai says the family’s use of pumpkin is ancestral.

“It’s typical of Mien style to have pumpkin in the curry.”

Over at Taste of Thai, Victor relies on 20 years cooking experience to create off-menu specials like wild salmon with mango curry -- more like dishes you’d find in urban Bangkok. Not that either owner would know – they’ve never tried each other’s food. 

            Mai pen rai
           
There’s a saying in Thailand, mai pen rai, and it means never mind … bend with the wind … no worries. To hear Victor’s side of the story, a touch of mai pen rai could be what’s turned an awkward situation into one of peaceful coexistence.

            “We’re not friends, but we’re not enemies. We’re OK.”

            It’s the same for Saechao next door at Chada Thai.

“We’re both OK. We’re happy together because we have a lot of customer to come down Broadway.”

            Sorry to disappoint, but it looks like any gritty rivalry between the two Chada  – on the right – and Taste of Thai – on the left -- is in the minds of customers. You can celebrate them both or draw your line in the sidewalk. If one of these restaurants weren’t any good, one of them wouldn’t be here.

            One woman, stuck in traffic and approaching the Thai restaurant nexus, has worked out the dilemma caused by overwrought restaurant ratings.

            “I just go back and forth between the two of them.  They’re both good. So, I’m going to go eat ….”



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