Taste of Thailand: Sukhothai
Published December 21, 2007
In April, 2005, Chira and Ray Rabenda opened Sukhothai. The restaurant was packed on the day they opened, and they are filling tables almost three years later. On my visits to the restaurant, the tables were brimming with young couples, families, and groups of friends. Sukhothai, one of the few Thai restaurants in the region, fulfills Rabenda’s goal to bring Thai culture and “tasty, well presented” food to the area.
Growing up in northeast Thailand, Rabenda learned to cook from her mother, whom she recognizes as her greatest culinary influence: “She taught me well. She always encouraged me. My parents worked hard and I learned from them.” Rabenda often had to cook for her large family (she is the second of 11 children), on a remarkably small budget. As Thai cooking tends to be based more on oral tradition than written history, she learned cooking secrets from her mother: techniques passed down from generation to generation that cannot be found in any cookbook.
While Rabenda’s mother tended to her large brood, her father supported the family financially, owning a cinema and dubbing foreign films into Thai. Parlaying language skills learned from her father, Chef Rabenda entered and won a contest in Bangkok doing voiceover narration. Later, she attended Griffith University in Australia where she studied hotel management, earning a master’s degree.
Three days before September 11, 2001, Rabenda moved to New York City. Shortly thereafter, she met Ray, a Poughkeepsie native, and moved to the Hudson Valley. Having worked in the hotel industry for 12 years, the recent newlywed questioned her career goals. While never having worked as a chef, she had cooked for her large family and her friends, who frequently sampled her culinary creations and encouraged her culinary ambitions. She relished the challenge and the Rabendas set out to actualize their vision for a Thai restaurant. They settled on Beacon, a city poised for growth as it emerged from the Hudson Valley’s postindustrial doldrums.
Educating the public about her culture and cuisine is a fundamental goal for Rabenda, which goes hand in hand with pleasing her patrons. In fact, when the Rabendas purchased their restaurant property, they struggled to agree on a name. Built in 1818 and formerly an opera house, a grocery store, and most recently a bar, they took note of the exposed brick walls and the wheels of inspiration began turning. He believed “Bangkok Station” an appropriate moniker due to the nearby train tracks. She was inclined toward “Sukhothai,” the capital of the ancient Thai kingdom, also meaning “Dawn of Happiness.” To the budding restaurateur, the brick recalled the resplendent architecture of the historic city-state. As passersby approached their storefront during renovation, they sought the opinion of the general public. Eighty percent liked Chira’s choice. Ultimately yielding to the input of the residents, the couple agreed on the name.
The Rabendas designed their 49-seat dining room to have a warm, open feel. The high ceiling is peppered with mini-chandeliers and tropical-inspired ceiling fans and chili red walls contrast the nude brick. Saloon-style kitchen doors constantly swing open, servers coming and going, revealing a glimpse of the cooks in action.
Rabenda’s food represents what you would find in central Thailand, specifically in Bangkok. Traditional food of the region consists of unadorned dishes, usually rice served with vegetables or fish. However, in the dynamic city of Bangkok, an eater can experience fare from all regions of Thailand. The city is a culinary melting pot of Thai regional styles.
Sukhothai’s menu mirrors Bangkok cuisine, offering a potpourri of traditional Thai meals and street food, as well as an array of specialty dishes. Furthermore, unlike French cooking, for example, which tends to be precise and technical (and serves as the basis for formal culinary training in Europe and the US), Thai cooks formulate their food based on personal taste, and an inclination toward a variety of flavor combinations. Five key flavors dominate Thai cooking: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and hot. Different uses of these basic flavors produce a rainbow of tastes and aromas.
All dishes are spiced to taste so that each individual can specify a preferred level of heat. Rabenda’s gastronomical passion is curry, so we asked for hot, hot heat with ours. The curry sampler is served in four petite bowls, providing the opportunity to compare and contrast flavors and allow the diner to pick proteins to accompany the curries. All four curries are made with coconut milk, giving them a creamy, rich, slightly sweet aroma and flavor. The panang is traditionally made with thin strips of beef. Rabenda’s is accented with green beans and red bell pepper. Fish sauce gives it a sour tang. This curry is simultaneously salty, sweet, and sour, a typical Thai flavor profile.
We asked for chicken with the mustard-colored massam curry. Potatoes create a hearty, thick, stew in this curry. Made with tamarind, cinnamon, fish sauce, and coconut milk, it is less tangy than the panang and rounder on the tongue. The green curry with plump, succulent shrimp is mildly spicy, smooth, and silken. Thai basil gives it a floral aroma and an anise flavor. Kaffir lime adds a lemony scent. Instead of the chili pepper used to make red curry paste, fresh green peppers are utilized, giving it a lime-green color. Lastly, we requested pork with the red curry. Made with shrimp paste, it is zesty, fiery, and sweet. To contrast the thick slabs of tender pork, crunchy red peppers, bamboo shoots, and onions swimming in the sauce contribute to a balanced texture.
Rabenda seeks customer input to create authentic, yet personalized fare. Although her menu reflects the dishes she grew up cooking to feed her family, she is willing to change any recipe to suit a patron’s needs. Not afraid of dietary restrictions like gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegetarian, she informed me that she uses Splenda for diabetic customers. In addition to her flexibility, Chira churns out variations of the same dish. After introducing Pad Thai, one of Thailand’s national foods, to her audience, she expanded her menu to include Woon Sen Pad Thai (made with glass noodles) and Senyai Pad Thai (made with wide noodles).
One of northeast Thailand’s most popular dishes is Som Tam, eaten both on its own and often as an accompaniment to grilled meat. Served at room temperature, the star of the salad is very thinly grated ribbons of green, somewhat chewy papaya. Literally meaning “pounded sour,” chili, garlic, lime, and fish sauce are pounded with a mortar and pestle to create a spicy and sour taste sensation. Dried shrimp give it brine. Som Tom integrates the four main tastes of Thai cooking: piquant chili, salty fish sauce, sugar, and tangy lime. Crunchy green beans, carrots, and tomatoes showcase fresh ingredients often used in Thai cooking. In a country that’s hot climate rivals the heat of their food, eating Som Tam is a healthy, refreshing way to cool down. Another favorite is Tom Yum Goong, a steaming hot soup that also incorporates many distinct Thai flavors. Gingery galangal and flowery lime leaves, as well as shrimp and vegetables, add depth to a sinus-clearing, hot and sour lemongrass broth.
Some of Sukhothai’s standout entrees include the specialty Ped Yang, a sinfully crispy skinned duck served with a rich, thick “modified” hoisin (the chef adds sugar and vinegar) atop crunchy, deep fried collard greens. Twice cooked beef, accompanied by sticky rice and Som Tom, is marinated in a tangy teriyaki yielding an intensely rich flavor. Chicken satay and fish cakes are two appetizers commonly found in Bangkok’s endless street vendors.
The menu is vast and diverse, including a wide selection of noodle, rice, vegetable, fish, and meat dishes. Desserts include a rather gluttonous version of fried ice cream, a big enough portion to satiate several people. There are also several versions of fried bananas and ice cream flavors ranging from Thai tea to coconut to green tea. During the summer, they serve fresh mango on top of glutinous sticky rice and topped with silken coconut cream.
When Rabenda is not running her kitchen, she is at the head of the class. A year ago, after a customer told her, “We know your cooking and we hope one day we will be able to cook like you,” she decided to start teaching Sukhothai’s dishes. Her weekly Monday night class is comprised primarily of her regulars whom she instructs in small groups in Sukhothai’s kitchen.
Between running the restaurant and teaching, Rabenda is keeping busy. Yet she says she never hesitates to take a moment to step aside from her work to reflect on her philosophy: “Bottom line—you have to have a passion. You have to love what you do, particularly the food. I love everything I put on the table.”
Sukhothai is open for lunch and dinner. During lunch, appetizers and salads range from $2.59 to $5.99 and entrees are all $8.95. Dinner appetizers range from $4.99 to $9.99, soups and salads $3.99 to $16.95, entrées $11.95 to $24.95, and desserts from $3.50 to $5.95. Wines by the glass run $7 to $8 and are offered by the bottle from $24 to $38. Small-production domestic beers and imported Thai beers are also served.
Sukhothai, 516 Main Street, Beacon