I’m in the way… again. Moon Louneviseth, head chef at King and I, a Thai restaurant on South Grand Boulevard, smiles broadly and waves her hand at me. “Excuse,” she says for what must be the third time in five minutes. I’m in the way again. Louneviseth started with the restaurant as a cook when it opened at a different location back in 1981. After being in her kitchen for no longer than 10 minutes, I realize it was not built for awkward guys who scribble into notebooks. No. From the placement of the trash buckets to the angle of the pans on the stove, this kitchen is the picture of 30 years of efficiency and production. It is a well-oiled machine, and Louneviseth is in the flow.
The experience of the kitchen is a reflection of its hardworking, unapologetically authentic DNA. King and I, the first Thai restaurant in St. Louis, was founded by Suchin Prapaisilp, who migrated to the United States in 1972 with his brother, Preeya, with little more than 700 bucks.
“When I opened King and I, there were no Thai restaurants in St. Louis,” says Prapaisilp, who also founded Jay International (formerly Jay Asian Foods) on Grand Boulevard in 1974. “We had some advantages being the first ones. We have never had to deviate or change what we do to match other people. Instead, we get to establish what the customer wants and expects from Thai food.”
Prapaisilp’s lean frame hunches forward in his chair as he reaches into a filing cabinet. After ducking under a conveyor belt and rounding a corner, we are now seated in his windowless basement office at Global Foods Market, an international-foods grocery store he opened in Kirkwood in 2001. His office is spotless and Spartan. Prapaisilp searches for a photo he has of the space now occupied by King and I.
“I used to bus tables at this place,” says Prapaisilp as he taps the pictured Chinese restaurant. His employment there was one of the three jobs he held when he first came to the United States. He also made donuts, worked in a factory and delivered phone books. He tears up as he recalls the kindness he experienced from strangers and how he used to make ends meet. And it is this level of earnestness, work ethic and gratitude that is evident in both the kitchen and the food at King and I.
Louneviseth’s broad smile stands in stark contrast to the shouting and chaos around her. It’s the kind of smile that, if you were to be eating dinner in her home, says that you will not leave hungry. Three other cooks, mostly of Laotian decent, hurriedly take orders off the printer and toss together stir-fry, pad thai and Yum salad. Urgent Thai, Laotian, Spanish and English syllables are hurled between the servers and cooks.
With burners constantly on, the kitchen speed and movement create an aromatic assault. Two orders for Basil Chicken come in. The dish starts with garlic and oil on the already hot pan. Just as the aroma of the garlic hits, fish oil is added to the pan with bell peppers and onions. The air feels warm, savory and salty. While that cooks, Louneviseth cracks two eggs over another pan into another pool of oil. Fresh ground chicken and chiles are added to the first pan, and suddenly my eyes water from the spicy heat. Louneviseth sprinkles in whole basil leaves.
The first order was “medium hot,” so Louneviseth pours half the portion over jasmine rice. The second order was for “Thai One” – that is beyond “hot.” Louneviseth adds more chiles to the pan along with more fish sauce and herbs.
“It is important for her to balance out the spicy with the other flavors,” says Sasi White, general manager, who picked up on the inquisitive look on my face. Louneviseth dishes out the second portion and tops each dish with a fried egg.
“Something that makes Thai food unique is the balance of all of the flavors,” says Naam Pruitt, a native of Thailand and author of Lemongrass and Limes, a Thai cookbook. “Thai does not have a main dish the way that American food does. It is meant to be a few smaller courses. A true homemade Thai meal has four flavor components: spicy, sweet, salty and sour.”
Pruitt believes that the combination of these four flavors distinguishes Thai food from its neighboring Asian cuisine. For example, Chinese food has salty and sweet flavors, but it lacks the chiles and the lemongrass that create a broader spectrum of bright flavors.
Balance is such an integral part of the culture at King and I that the staff is not conscious of it. It transcends the flavors of the food. Spicy foods are served with mild or soy flavors. Salads that are bright in appearance and taste are balanced with warm and calming soups or desserts.
While balance is common in Thai cuisine, it is of particular interest to Prapaisilp, who was motivated to start the restaurant that would re-create the flavors and aromas from his youth. His father worked in tin mines that were 80 kilometers into the jungle while his mother cooked food for the workers. During the summer months, Prapaisilp would sell food out of a cart for the workers’ lunches. It was during that time that he learned the principles of listening to your customers and how to properly serve a meal.
“Everything that we serve at King and I is made from scratch,” says Prapaisilp. “The peanut sauce in the satay, all of the curry and the fish sauce – we make all of it at the restaurant. So our food always tastes and looks fresh. That is very important in Thai cooking.”
And when he says it is made from scratch, he does not mean it casually. Take the kaffir lime plant. There are few other ingredients that are as quintessentially Thai as the kaffir lime. Its rind is used in curry, and the leaves are used in soups and other dishes. It has a distinctive flavor that cannot be easily matched. Every Thai kitchen should have a plethora on hand. There’s just one problem: Kaffir limes cannot be imported into the United States. But they have found a way around this issue at King and I.
“Moon has a couple of plants in her backyard, and so do I,” says White as she smiles. “It is important that we have them here – especially for the curry.”
On Sundays at King and I, they make their own curry for the week – a practice that is not shared by many Thai restaurants. Once you see what goes into the creation, it’s easy to see why. They start by chopping fresh lemongrass, chiles, shallots, garlic, the rind from kaffir limes, galangal, herbs and spices. They chop until it is finely ground. Then they chop more and grind it further with a mortar and pestle. Then they mix in fish oil and coconut milk.
“Curry came to Thailand from India,” says Pruitt. “Thai curry is very different from Indian curry, with the use of coconut milk and kaffir limes, but it was Indians and Persians that first created it. A lot of Thai dishes are the result of influence from neighboring countries. The most obvious are India and China. For example, the Chinese introduced deep-frying and stir-fry cooking.”
Pruitt describes the culinary landscape of Thailand as having four areas: north, central, south and northeast. Northern food has Burmese influence – many noodle dishes, not a lot of spice, pork and sausages. The central area has the foods that are the most widely served around the world – rice dishes, curry, pad thai and seafood. Southern food has a lot more chile spice and salty flavors – they do not use coconut milk, and they don’t use as much of the sour components. The food in the northeast has a lot of influence from Laos – some raw fish, lots of salads with spicy and sour flavors.
“Seafood hot pot.” Louneviseth had to say this twice because the kitchen is loud and because it was a grouping of words I had never heard put together. I had asked her what her favorite dish to prepare was because that is what I would order for dinner. She was kind enough to indulge me. I ordered it mild because I wanted to taste the other flavors before I was overwhelmed with spice. And because I am a wuss.
Louneviseth starts with a pot of chicken broth that was already hot. She adds some crab paste. As that simmers, she gathers a ladle full of galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and adds it to the stock. She cooks the shrimp, scallops, calamari and mussels in a separate pan and then adds them with whole mushrooms and fresh chiles to the first pot. A good handful of basil and cilantro completes the meal.
The presentation is also something to witness. The concoction is served in a donut-shaped bowl with a shaft through the center. At the tableside, the server lights a burner under the bowl and a blue flame emerges from the center. Hovering near it while you are dining means that you are continually romanced into eating more – the full flavors assault the senses.
According to White, most of the food that is served at King and I comes from Bangkok or central Thailand. “I would say something like 90 to 95 percent of the Thai food that you see in restaurants comes from the central part of the country,” she says. “Once in a while you see some north foods or northeast foods like the papaya salad on our menu. But you never see food from the south. It does not appeal to many Americans.”
While appealing to many Americans was not necessarily high on Prapaisilp’s list when he opened the restaurant more than 30 years ago, he was mindful of his audience when he named his restaurant King and I. He knew that an American demographic would be familiar with the popular Yul Brynner musical and associate it with Thailand. But the namesake also has another meaning.
“Our original head chef was my sister-in-law, who passed away several years ago,” he says. “Her mother worked as a cook for the royal family in Thailand. So a lot of what my sister-in-law learned in the kitchen about how to prepare the meals came from the royal experience. So part of the reason for the name was that this was the way the food was made for the king many years ago.”
“You try it,” says Louneviseth while handing me a bowl and spoon with some of the broth from the seafood hot pot. Instantly, I taste the lemongrass and citrus tones followed by the salty taste of the seafood. The warmth of the broth also activates the familiar taste of cilantro. All of the careful attention to balance suddenly becomes clear. Each component of the hot pot has an extreme flavor – the chiles, lemongrass and galangal are bright. But together they create a complex and beautiful balance.
As I am paying attention to the first bowl, Louneviseth hands me another one. “Volcano,” she says. Still swooning from the cilantro and lemongrass warmth, I take a sip. At first, it tastes exactly the same. Then the chiles hit the back of my throat. Sweat beads burst on the back of my neck and break out over my scalp. The heat is so intense that my mouth gets numb. Apparently that is what it’s like when you order it “hot.”
“That is why we love the seafood hot pot so much,” says White. “It is full of bright flavor.”
With sweat dripping off my beard, I ask Louneviseth why she likes to make it. “Because I love it,” she says. “Because it is soup. On a cool day, it makes you feel good.”
King and I, 3157 S. Grand Blvd., South Grand, 314.771.1777, thaispicy.com