Thai food spices up Waynesville’s culinary scene

Americans love pad thai.

This one fact, Nonglak Pafuang is sure of. After moving to the U.S. from Thailand five years ago, she’s learned that the varied cuisines of her homeland are popular stateside, but none more than pad thai, a popular stir fry that features fried egg and rice noodles. It’s just one of the things she’s learned over the last half-decade spent starting and running Thai restaurants around the Southeast.

Pafuang, known to pretty much everyone as Doh, is the manager of Waynesville’s newest restaurant, Thai Spice. The Main Street store isn’t her first foray into Asian dining. She and the restaurant’s owner, Karan Kalongrat, have opened and run two other Thai dining spots, one in Wilmington and one in Anderson, S.C.

Those restaurants are now in the hands of their capable staff, said Doh. And she and Kalongrat have brought their traditional Thai flavors to the mountains.

“We plan to stay here,” she said. “When I look out of the door, the mountains and trees are so pretty.”

Originally, they’d looked at Asheville as their next location, enamored of its beauty and mountain charisma. But they eventually settled on Waynesville, which won out with its small town charm. It took them three months to get the place ready for action, and they opened their doors in early April after checking off a sizable list of repairs and renovations.

And in their short time in the space once occupied by Ceviche’s on Main, she said things look promising.

Unlike the other locales where they’ve set up shop, Doh said that so far, their Waynesville patrons have been eager diners who have been waiting for a Thai option to open its doors.

“It seems like people in this town really seem to know Thai food,” said Pafuang. And while they grew love and support for their food over time in their other homes, she said they started almost from scratch with customers there.

And noticing those customers’ preferences is how they craft their menu; thus, the pad thai.

“We pick the most popular dishes that American people know,” she said, which usually include curries in addition to pad thai.

But if she had her way, Pafuang would be serving the more spicy and flavorful dishes that her home country’s national kitchen has to offer.

While much American food relies on the two heavyweights of flavoring — salt and pepper — to add kick to the cuisine, Thai fare, she said, samples a much broader selection of the seasoning range, both in taste and heat. On the restaurant’s menu, there’s even evidence of this: the options for each dish are mild, medium, spicy and Thai spicy. This, she said, is why her favorite Thai dishes are the most intensely spicy, flavorful offerings that don’t often make their way onto the restaurant’s menu. They’re a bit too punched up for the average American palate.

But she’s confident in the offerings that do feature on their menus, because she knows Kalongrat’s culinary standard is high. That’s why she can focus her energy and attention on making sure customers are not only enjoying a good product, but having fun and relaxing while doing it.

“I like to make a restaurant beautiful,” said Pafuang. “I’m happy when people come and enjoy the atmosphere.”

And she has, indeed, brought a sunny, Asian warmth to the place, gracing the vibrant orange walls with local art from Frog Level’s Gallery 262. A gleaming golden dragon greets diners at the front entrance and sheer white curtains billow behind it and in the front windows. The space itself is small but open, and diners are clustered around small tables that line the walls.

And while it’s a different experience than other restaurants that grace the downtown landscape, Pafuang hopes that locals will continue to warm to it, and maybe even try a new thing or two.

“When they get used to having Thai food,” she promises, “really, they’ll love it.”

(Thai Spice is located across the street from Sun Trust on Main Street in Waynesville.)

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