If a chef I respect raves about a restaurant, I tend to take notice. So when Kathi Riley Smith—once the executive chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe—told me about Paste Thai in Davis, I suggested we go there for lunch. “I don’t think I’ve ever had Thai food made with fresher ingredients,” she said.
We were joined by a mutual friend, longtime caterer and cooking instructor Roxanne O’Brien. Kathi let Rox do the ordering—“as long as we get that cashew thing,” she said. That cashew thing turned out to be stir-fried cashews with onions and roasted chili sauce, which Roxanne ordered along with a crazy-long list of other dishes: fresh spring rolls, fried tofu, salt-and-pepper calamari, Thai fish cakes, stir-fried Chinese eggplant, and green curry with shrimp and scallops.
I learn a lot when eating with industry people like Kathi and Roxanne, with their sharp palates and extensive food knowledge. Kathi complimented the freshness of the fried fish cakes and calamari. “I’m really picky about fryer oil,” she said. “Look at the color of this calamari—no dark bits from old oil.” She was equally impressed with the delicate fried Thai basil leaves that garnished one of the dishes—“I’ve never had that before.” Both Kathi and Rox noted with approval that Paste Thai makes its own curry pastes from scratch. Summing up her impression of the meal, Kathi said, “Everything is super fresh tasting.”
A few weeks later, I was in the kitchen at Paste Thai to meet the owners and find out how they do things. Douangchay Luanglath, the chef, makes all the restaurant’s curry pastes—red, green, yellow and panang—by hand twice a week. She demonstrated the process for me, using an enormous clay mortar and pestle to grind fresh galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallots, dried Thai chilies, shrimp paste and salt into a thick, smooth puree that she would later stir-fry in oil and combine with coconut milk to make red curry sauce. Co-owner Penprapa Athiprayoon explained that the paste’s texture is better when it’s made by hand, rather than in a food processor. Most Thai restaurants don’t bother to make their own, she said; they buy it premade.
The two women opened Paste Thai last June. Before that, it had been a casual spot called The Chicken Hawkers, serving takeout Thai street food. Luanglath worked as the chef there for owner Deo Suwan.
Athiprayoon moved to the United States from Thailand with her family when she was 20 and learned to speak English working at a restaurant her parents owned in San Francisco’s Mission District. She later got a job in the airline industry, and for a brief while, she and her then-husband owned a Thai restaurant in San Jose. Retiring early from the airlines, she moved to Davis, where she met Luanglath (who goes by the American name Kim). When Suwan closed The Chicken Hawkers, the two women decided to team up. “I opened this restaurant because I loved Kim’s food,” said Athiprayoon. “I couldn’t see Kim not cooking anymore because her food is so good.”
They serve things you won’t find at most Thai restaurants, such as crispy house-cured pork belly stir-fried with gai lan (Chinese broccoli), egg custard over sticky rice, and curry puffs, a labor-intensive appetizer of laminated pastry dough filled with curry chicken or sweet taro paste. For a while, they offered house-made coconut ice cream, served Thai street food style with bread and sticky rice, but American diners didn’t go for it, so now they serve Thai coconut pudding and sticky black rice with mango for dessert. The house specialty is something called “chicken rice,” another popular Thai street food. Paste’s version features poached Mary’s Organic chicken, served over rice that is cooked in chicken broth with lots of garlic and ginger. Luanglath recently returned from a lengthy visit to Thailand and Laos, where she went to soak up new culinary inspiration.
While there are plenty of Thai restaurants in Sacramento, Kathi Riley Smith is happy to drive to Davis to eat at Paste Thai. “This is so different from the heavy-handed Thai food you usually get,” she said.
417 Mace Blvd., Davis (in El Macero Center);