Food lies at the heart of our bodies and our culture; it is there for celebrations and sustenance. NOMaste features a local fierce foodie each month, in four weekly segments. First, an interview, then a top 10 list, followed by a recipe to share, and finally a food review. This food corner will not just feature local chefs but also restaurateurs, buyers, suppliers — any woman involved in any aspect of the food chain, from farm to food truck. Join us each week as we get to know another Foodie in the city.
When Rin first came to America, she had never seen a microwave before. She had taken some cooking classes at different schools growing up and did well, but they only covered the very basics. Coming from a food haven where vendors and small mom-and-pop storefronts were common in the front rooms of houses and on the street, she was greeted by a cold wasteland where there weren’t hot, flavorful, and spicy offerings at every corner.
“That’s when I literally had to learn to cook quickly at home, because I didn’t want to eat a sandwich or cold cuts,” Rin said. That was the Buffalo of 1994; a Buffalo before summer food truck rodeos and places like the West Side Bazaar, where you had many different cultural flavors all within reach, all authentic and delicious. This was an unforgiving place, where Rin had to learn to cook. “I always loved to cook, I was just not really good at it at first. I started cooking at home when I first moved here. It was simple — ramen noodles, [I] put eggs in there, meats, vegetables; not just ramen with hot water — real ramen.”
Starting out, Rin had high standards. The thought of making a cold sandwich with two stale pieces of white store-bought bread and a few slices of cold cuts was as abysmal as pouring hot water over a brick of ramen and sprinkling in the flavor packet with nothing else. Even at 16, she knew if you were going to eat, you should eat well. Her ramen would be a beautiful production, a bowl full of flavor and ingredients that were simple, fresh, and delicious. But these explorations into the culinary world were not without some funny episodes along the way. Take the microwave — the mystery cooking box that she had never before seen.
“The first time using the microwave: not good. I put an egg in there and walked away… A minute later, I hear BOOM! I am home alone, I just moved here, and I never saw a microwave before in my life. I thought I could cook eggs in there. I never used a microwave to cook anything ever again. I was like, oh my god… What an embarrassment. And now look at me, owning a restaurant!”
The restaurant business was in her blood, so it was perhaps destiny that she would find herself at the helm of an eponymously named eatery. Her aunt back in Thailand had owned a large restaurant, where at 5 years old she would ‘help’ by bussing tables and playing inside, until she was old enough to stack cups and not be underfoot. Her mother had a front-room stall in their house where she would sell small appetizers on the street. When they emigrated to Buffalo, her mother would make spring rolls and appetizers in small batches to friends and neighbors.
“The community would like it and want to buy some. She would make a little bit here and there — not restaurant quality, [just] out of the house. We were like, ‘Oh wait! We can do this!’” They took the leap and opened The King and I, down in Snyder.
The restaurant was a family affair. The entire Suphankomut family helped and worked at the family restaurant: her two older brothers, her mother and father, and some friends. At the time, Rin was only a server since she was also going to school full time, but she would stand beside her mother and help make the authentic Thai sauces from scratch — learning that all-important skill. She worked tirelessly alongside her family until her mother’s passing in 2003. A few short months after that, the building got sold and the King and I had to move. Her family decided to reopen just a few blocks away.
“We remodeled it, [and] reopened within a year of when we closed the original [location]. It was a lot of work. We did the whole thing, the kitchen, everything started fresh. On February 9, 2004 we opened the second King and I. My brother ran the kitchen and I ran the front — it was amazing.”
It was also hard work. For years they worked tirelessly in the new location until, one by one, each of the brothers had moved on. “We all grew up, got married, had our own families, so we all opened our own locations.” One brother opened up a place in Bowmansville called the Water Lily Cafe, as well as the food truck, Thai Me Up. Another brother had opened a restaurant in Hamburg, but after having children decided to move back to Thailand and leave Rin to run the restaurant.
“I never stopped working at The King and I until 2016, [when] someone acquired my building — so why not? A new opportunity — when one door closes another one opens. So I sold it.” Rin decided that since the rest of her family all had opened restaurants, including her mother and family back home, why not her? “I was like, why don’t I open my own? They opened their own thing!” And so she did, after a yearlong hiatus of work when she took a much needed and deserved break. “I was out of a job for one year which was GREAT. [It was] the first time I never did anything, I just stayed home and played with my dog [named Ramen] and traveled.”
She did a lot of traveling with her longtime boyfriend, Bing Paesang. He traveled frequently for work. Whenever he went somewhere, Rin tagged along. No matter where they were — Portland, Denver, New York, all across Europe — she would stop at the local Thai restaurants and see what they had on the menu. “[I wanted to] pick their brains, see what they have that’s good.”
She was shocked to find some very traditional dishes offered, and was amazed that the locals would order them. “Sometimes [I was] like, ‘This is my childhood food! I can’t believe they sell it there. Why can’t I sell it?’” She took this concept to heart and decided her new place would be more than just Pad Thai.
After a year of travel with Bing, and a lot of time home with her Shih Tzu Ramen, it was time to get down to things. She found a location right on Elmwood and signed a lease in June of 2017. Rin and Bing decided to take their relationship to the business level and became partners in this exciting new venture. Bing remains more of a silent partner, while Rin runs the show of the daily operations and the cooking. Thinking the renovation would take a couple months, she got to work — but it was a huge job. Turned out, the whole place needed to be redone, from gas pipes to hood vents.
This operation, along with the incredibly long list of red tape that is opening a restaurant — fire inspection, gas inspection, plumbing inspection, building inspection, health department inspection, sign inspection (for the sign out front) and an interview with the police to make sure that it was a legitimate business (something new to Rin, and to myself). Once everything was signed and ready to go, she was open for business Thanksgiving weekend, a mere 5 and a half months later. Things have been picking up steam ever since.
Rin is doing something that not a lot of Thai places are doing in Buffalo, and that’s making her customers try new things. Her passion is to get people to eat real Thai food, and get out from under the Pad Thai spell we are collectively under, or so she’s gathered from interactions with new customers.
“Buffalo is SO Pad Thai. Customers ask me what the specials are; I’m standing there for 10 minutes explaining everything, and they end up saying, ‘I’m going to have the pad thai chicken.’”
When you walk into the restaurant, you’ll notice that there are no menus — the menu is written on a small chalkboard on the wall, forcing you to pick from a small variety of dishes. Yes, you will find a couple of favorite stand-bys, but you will also see some new items that you have perhaps not tried before. “I want people to try something different. If you have too many choices, you go back to the old dishes you are comfortable with. We [encourage] the customer to try [a new dish], and get one dish that [they] know. It’s better off that way…What if it’s their favorite dish, but they’d never know because they were too afraid to try it?”
Even if you try new things, don’t be afraid to let her know if it’s not what you were thinking. Rin is more than happy to fix a dish if you find it’s too bland, or, more often, too spicy. “I will stand behind the counter and prep the next dish so I can see the people by the counter. I glance at my customer [to] see if they eat, then bounce their head, saying, ‘Yeah, this is good.’ That’s a good feeling. If I see them pick at it, I say, ‘I gotta go over there!’ But I really like seeing someone enjoying their dish — it’s satisfying.”
On more than one occasion she has seen a customer clearly suffer through a spicy dish, and has asked to adjust it for them — to take it down a notch. Since the patrons who usually suffer through a meal also suffer from a condition known as pride, they will opt to sweat it out, red-faced. “It’s happened many times — they’ll order 3 stars, hot, and they can’t handle hot. Our hot is different. If you can’t handle it, it’s okay — we’ll fix it for you! Don’t suffer through your meal… why feel uncomfortable?”
Her business neighbors have also been an incredible source of community and caring. From the dog shop next door that Rin frequents for Ramen, to the lawyers’ office who often eat at the restaurant, to Ashker’s down the block who gave her a box of straws one night when she ran out. Even the clothing store on the corner, Red Siren, gave her employee a discount when she said she worked at Rin Thai Bistro. Slowly but surely, her steady list of regulars has grown, as more and more people from the neighborhood are making Rin Thai Bistro a regular stop in their weekly food tours of the neighborhood, or their number one lazy Sunday take out option.
“You build a relationship [with those repeat customers]. A lot of customers now will say, ‘Whatever you want to make, I will have one appetizer, and two entrees — take your pick.’ That’s good, they trust me, [they] tried it, they opened up to me.” This is exactly the kind of thing Rin wants to see in Buffalo, and the exact relationship with her customers she wants. “[I want them to try it] the authentic way first, the way that people in Thailand [have] it.” That’s why she has opted to not join up with GrubHub or SkipTheDishes — she feels she will lose that relationship-building; it’s too cold and impersonal. She wants to know you, so you can tell her to pick a dish for you, so you get to try some more traditional Thai flavors you might never have before.
She has her sights set on exposing Buffalo to the different regional dishes next. Much like any other country, dishes from south, east, north, and central Thailand all have their own flavor and flare.
“We [are] thinking [of doing] traditional province dishes…what we have right now is more central. This one dish I’m thinking about making is [from the] northeast. It’s papaya salad — it’s a Thai dish, but in the northeast we eat it differently.” Another love of Rin’s is curry. “I love curry personally. I love coconut – that’s why. Ninety percent of curry in Thailand has coconut in it. A lot of people think of curry as a scary dish, they think of the curry being…too spicy. This is not [true] — our base has fresh basil, garlic, chili, lemongrass, and, of course, fish sauce. You put it all together and it’s well-balanced, not one thing will be [more] pronounced than the other, they all go together. I can eat curry every day. The curry from the northern part is different from the southern part, and [from] the central part. Each [is] a little different from each other.”
I look forward to seeing Rin expand her menu to include these other regional dishes, and get us more familiar with the nuances from her homeland. No one likes to be stuck in a rut — whether an individual OR a city. I hope we can show Rin that Buffalo is not “so Pad Thai” anymore, that we can try new things, be open-minded, and trust our chefs. That is why we go to restaurants in the first place, right? To try new things and let someone else take the wheel who knows better than us, who knows more. So next time you are out and want Thai, try Rin’s new place. If you are as adventurous as I know you can be, let her pick for you. Who knows? Your next favorite dish may be what she brings to you.
Photos by AlanAdetolArts, L.L.C. – Birdcage Studios – Buffalo, N.Y. 14213 –[email protected]
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