Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in Digital Issue V.
The brightly graffitied Thai-Kun trailer stands out among the picnic tables in the courtyard of Whistler’s, a quaint bar located on East Sixth Street. Even on a lazy Sunday evening, every table is filled with people sipping cocktails and eating heaping amounts of Thai food out of paper containers.
Story by Alyssa Arnold
Photos by Kristen Hubby
For a food trailer, Thai-Kun has far from humble beginnings. The year it opened, Thai-Kun snagged the number eight spot in Bon Appétit Magazine’s top restaurants of 2014 list, becoming the only food trailer that year to be featured. Created as a spin-off from the popular East Side King food trucks, Thai-Kun is co-owned by Thai Changthong, Moto Utsunomyia and Paul Qui, the latter of whom is a James Beard Award winner and winner of Top Chef: Texas.
Thai-Kun began as a trailer after co-owner and head chef Thai Changthong missed traditional Thai staples such as khao man gai, chicken and rice served with a spicy chili garlic sauce. He wanted more options than burgers or fast food at after the dinner rush, and he found himself missing Thailand at 1 a.m. “So when I had a chance to do a spin off food truck from East Side King, I didn't have to think very far for the menu. I just did my favorite late night foods,” Changthong says.
One of chef Changthong’s personal culinary influences for the Thai-Kun trailer is his father. Growing up in Thailand, Changthong spent his days experimenting in the kitchen. “At the time I don’t think I'd call it cooking, it was more like playing around,” Changthong says. “I didn’t know if what I was making was right or wrong, I just knew when I liked it. I enjoyed cooking so I kept doing it.”
Changthong’s Thai influence is evident in his menu for Thai-Kun. The Cabbage Two Ways, one of the truck’s standout dishes, is packed with a delicious helping of raw and fried pickled cabbage mixed with holy basil, cilantro, ginger, red onion, peanuts and Thai-Kun’s signature boom sauce, a blend of chilies that add a bit of tang, spice, and sweetness to several dishes on the menu. The dish takes an often overlooked vegetable and turns it into a delightful salad that is tangy, crispy and refreshing. “The food was reminiscent of cuisine I enjoyed during the five years that I spent growing up in Thailand,” Shivani Pandya, a first time diner at Thai-Kun, said.
Another dish is the Thai Fried Chicken with chicken fat rice. Juicy small pieces of fried chicken sit next to a mound of chicken fat rice with pickled cucumbers and spicy boom sauce. “While chicken fat rice sounds unappetizing at first, once you take the first bite you will not want to eat rice any other way,” says Isabella Hsaio, a longtime fan of East Side King. The chicken fat makes the rice flavorful and sticky, a complement to the crispy chicken and chilled pickled cucumbers.
Each Thai-Kun menu item is also listed with a drink pairing from Whistler’s, encouraging customers to grab a drink while they grub.
Looking toward the future, Changthong has big plans for the food trailer. “I hope to get more and more guests comfortable with the flavors and the spices and continue to introduce more authentic dishes,” he says.