Talking about Buddha Thai Bistro with chef and owner Guy Boonsanong
1. Tell us about Buddha Thai Bistro.
Buddha Thai Bistro is a Thai restaurant owned by me, Guy Boonsanong. I was born and raised in Thailand and I also lived in L.A. for a while. My mother owns a few Thai restaurants in L.A. and I grew up in the restaurant business. I was in Jacksonville for about 7 years before opening the restaurant in March of 2010.
2. What's your overall concept for Buddha Thai Bistro?
Our concept is to be a family owned restaurant serving home cooked Thai meals in a truly authentic style. We want the family approach to be how we treat our employees and our customers. My mother is back and forth from L.A. She is like the head chef, controlling the kitchen and the menu and making sure everything is the way it's supposed to be.
3. How would you describe Thai food, and what makes for authentic Thai food?
Thai food is all about fresh, healthy, flavorful food. We use a lot of herbs. In fact, I'm the one who goes to the farmer's market every week to pick out the freshest herbs I can find. Thai food has complex flavors. We have a word in Thai - "Yum" - which means the 4 flavors of sweet, salty, sour and spicy, all combined into one bite. Thai meals are usually served in a single dish. We don't have a main protein with separate sides. Instead, we combine everything into one dish, which we eat with rice.
4. Are there regional styles in Thai cooking?
Yes, absolutely! There are 4 main styles that come from the north of Thailand, the north east, the south and then the middle area of Thailand. We represent all styles in our menu.
5. You serve a lot of vegan dishes. Is that reflective of Thai cuisine?
Vegan dishes are really popular in Thailand. There's a vegan holiday called Kin Jay in Thailand that runs for 9 days straight. The whole country celebrates with lots of vegan food served. In many southern parts of Thailand everyone stops eating meat and it isn't even served. If you are a tourist and arrived during the holiday you'd be surprised that you couldn't find meat.
The vegan aspect is also part of the Thai culture and something I grew up with. In Thailand we aren't as focused on meat and use it more to flavor a dish. So we do offer a lot of vegan dishes at the restaurant. It's something that's easy for us because we grew up with it and it's part of the way we're used to eating.
Vegan dishes are becoming a lot more popular here in Jacksonville Beach and we get a lot of people who enjoy vegan dishes coming in. We can make about 70% of our dishes vegan if people want it that way because we make everything fresh for each order. We don't prepare our meals in advance. That means we can substitute almost anything someone wants.
6. Who's the audience for your restaurant?
Our main audience is the local community in Jacksonville Beach. There's not a big Thai community in Jacksonville Beach but we try to bring them together and also introduce some Thai culture to the local community. We mainly do this by celebrating Thai holidays, including the Thai New Year. We've also done things like having a monk come in to bless the restaurant.
7. Can you recommend something to someone new to Buddha Thai Bistro who wants to get an idea of what your restaurant is all about?
I would start with the Papaya Salad - it's one of the most famous Thai dishes around the world. It's a raw type salad. We use fresh green papaya that is shredded to keep it crunchy. We add green beans, carrots, and a spicy lamb dressing, which gives it that "yum" combination of salty, sweet, spicy and sour. It's light and fresh.
…is that salad typically eaten as an appetizer, or a main meal?
Most Thai people would eat it as a meal, but they'd add barbecue chicken.
…can you recommend another dish?
Yes, I'd also recommend a green curry dish. Green curry is one of my favorites and I use it a lot. It's made up of green curry paste, mixed with creamy coconut milk, egg plant, Thai holy basil, carrots and peas. The curry paste combined with the coconut milk gives you a wonderful creamy, spicy taste.
Many times people shy away from curry because they think it will be strong. Thai curry isn't that way. With the coconut milk mixed in it is very smooth and creamy.
8. Can you recommend something a little more adventurous?
I'd recommend trying some of our spicy noodle dishes. There's one called Drunk Man Noodles. It's a spicier, stir fried noodle dish with a light brown, spicy sauce. You can add your choice of meat or protein, such as chicken, beef, shrimp or scallops. We also offer tofu and soy meat, such as soy chicken, soy shrimp or soy fish if you want a vegan protein option.
9. Are there any dishes you really like that may be less popular but that you think people would like if they gave it a try?
There's always something like that. Brown fried rice is really good. People are often afraid to try brown rice because they think it'll be dry and a little tougher. We mix together brown rice and weeddy rice (also known as red rice), then stir fry it with vegetables. It's healthy, filling, and comes with a lot of nutrition that's good for you
10. What's the most popular dish?
…why is that?
Because we make really good Pad Thai! We make it the traditional way, wrapped in an omelette. That's how it was served to the king in Thailand. It was called Royal Pad Thai. The omelette is called the Golden Wrapper. We prepare ours the same way when we serve it to our customers.
11. What's your favorite dish?
I like a lot of things. Hmmm…if I have to pick one it would be the Kra Pow - a spicy dish, stir fried with chicken, holy basil, bell pepper, chills, garlic, eggplant and onions. It's really simple and is one of the most common street foods in Thailand - like a hamburger in North America. People eat it everywhere in Thailand - often with a fried egg on top.
12. Where do you get your recipes?
Most of our recipes come from the Thai culture and from my experience cooking in Thailand and at our Thai restaurants in California.
13. What brought you from L.A. to Jacksonville?
I originally moved here to go to school and fell in love with Jacksonville Beach and the local community. When I started looking around I noticed that there weren't a lot of local Thai restaurants owned by Thai people. Most Thai restaurants in the area are owned by Laotians, who make good Thai food but not in the authentic way that it's done in places like L.A. So we saw an opportunity to bring an authentic Thai food experience to Jacksonville.
14. What attracted you to your restaurant location in Jacksonville Beach?
When I originally moved to Jacksonville I tried to come to the Beach all the time because I really liked it. And I really like the community itself. It's small, but everyone tries to support each other. It's a special little community.
15. What's the connection between Buddha Thai Bistro and Buddha's Belly restaurant?
Buddha's Belly was the original name we gave to our restaurant when we first opened. When we tried to trademark the name "Buddha's Belly" we realized there were other people using the name and it became too difficult to make our own. So we changed to Buddha Thai Bistro to have an identity that could be uniquely ours. The owners and the menu are the same, only the name changed.
16. Can you tell us about the significance of the name of your restaurant?
Buddhism is the biggest religion in Thailand, and the figure of the Buddha's belly conveys a good meaning of being healthy, happy and complete.
17. How did you learn to cook?
I learned most of my cooking skills from my aunt and my mom in Thailand. My culinary base is home cooking although I also went to some cooking classes while I lived in Thailand and worked in a number of restaurants before I worked in my mom's restaurant. But I learn the most by running a real business - being in the kitchen every day and working to improve the recipes and trying new things.
18. What made you want to be a chef?
I like to eat! I like to eat good food. I want to make good food and have people enjoy good eating, healthy eating. I hear a lot of people say that healthy food doesn't taste good. I don't agree with that. Healthy food can taste really good - you just have to cook it right. I want people to experience eating healthy and tasty at the same time in the same dish.
19. What have been some of the challenges running the restaurant?
My biggest challenge, when we first opened, was finding the right ingredients. We wanted to make authentic Thai food but in a city that isn't as big as somewhere like L.A. where there's a large Thai community and lots of ingredients to cook with. That meant we had to make substitutions where we could and where that wasn't possible we needed to bring the ingredients from L.A. The fresh ingredients are so important that I go pick them every week myself from local farmer's markets.
20. Where do you like to eat out in Jacksonville?
Blue Bamboo. Dennis Chan is a great chef. He makes Pad Thai - not in the authentic way - if you brought it to Thailand people would say "what's that?" It may not be authentic, but it's really, really good. He's a good chef.
21. Can you tell us about your local cooking show?
It's a small cooking segment on CW every Thursday morning at 7am. It's part of a show called The Willow. Cooking in the kitchen is one thing but presenting on TV is totally different. But I enjoy it. They have the same concept as us - they want healthy food that tastes good and they asked us to help present that. The show is about yoga and better, healthy living. That's what they want to present and that's why they asked us to work with them.
22. What's next for you?
In the short future I'm just going to keep cooking good food and making sure my customers are happy. Like every restauranteur we also look someday to have a second or even third location.