MASON, Ohio - Our "Global Table" column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey.
Arloi Dee Thai Bistro
Once again, Arloi Dee won over the judges’ stomachs at the Taste of Cincinnati. Arloi Dee, which means “delicious” in Thai, has a history of churning out winning food at the annual festival. It has won a number of honors, from Best Entree (2011), to Best Damn Dish (2012), to most recently, Best Vegetarian Dish (2013).
This restaurant is home to a number of Asian cuisines. You’ll find authentic Thai cuisine, Chinese food, and even a side of sushi.
This year, Arloi Dee's top dishes at the Taste were:
- Vegetable Pad Thai Noodles (Best Vegetarian, first place)
- Halal Chicken Curry Noodles (Best Entree, second place)
- Grilled Chicken Thai Style (Best Go Vibrant, second place)
The Vegetable Pad Thai Noodles (see picture above) get their tangy and slightly fruity character from tamarind sauce. Other ingredients like garlic, green onion, tofu, bean sprouts, and--the secret ingredient--sweet turnip, join the stir-fry. The dish is finished with chopped peanuts.
Arloi Dee’s customers happily consume its many offerings of curry. The Halal Chicken Curry Noodles (see picture below) is a yellow curry, made mellow with coconut milk. Flat rice noodles carry this dish of halal chicken, as well as other “punctuation” ingredients, like tofu, red onion, fresh bean sprouts, fried shallot and cilantro. A wedge of lime is offered with the dish for an optional zing.
The restaurant owner’s family recipe makes good with Grilled Chicken Thai Style. This light dish calls for the chicken to marinade overnight, in a flavorful liquid of curry, coconut milk, palm sugar, and cilantro. The well-seasoned chicken is then finished on the grill. Two sauces accompany the dish: One is rooted in fish sauce, topped with chopped red onion, chili pepper and lime, while the other is a house-made sweet chili sauce.
If you’re just looking for a "damn good dish", the Shrimp and Crab Dumpling Noodles may just fit the bill. It won the honor at Taste of Cincinnati in 2012. Siu mai style dumplings, which are essentially open-top dumplings, adorn this hearty dish of egg noodles.
Other popular dishes on offer at Arloi Dee include:
- Roast Duck Noodle Soup - served with fried chicken wonton and egg noodles.
- Garlic Pepper Shrimp - the preparation deviates from its Chinese counterpart, with the use of fish sauce and cilantro.
- The signature Thai sweet finish here is the Thai Mango and Sticky Rice. This dessert mingles sweetened coconut milk with steamed sticky rice. Fresh cut mango completes this plate of sweet comfort.
Meet the owner
Mali Lumsum was driving one day when she spotted the future location of Arloi Dee. She and her husband, Preecha, bought the land and built their restaurant from the ground up. That was more than 13 years ago.
Mali is the gregarious chef and owner. She happily cooks up all of her favorite dishes from her native Thailand.
“Everything here is her recipe. She puts her special secret in every dish,” said her daughter, Lidaa, who often serves as interpreter for her mother.
The Lumsums started Arloi Dee 20 years ago in downtown Cincinnati, at 7th and Vine, before relocating to Mason 13 years ago.
Born in the province of Samut Songkhram Mali moved to Chinatown in Bangkok when she was 10. She comes from good culinary stock; all of her family either own their own restaurants, or have a hand in the business.
“They say I was born to cook,” Mali chuckled. “My mother and sister opened their own restaurants. I opened my own restaurant in Thailand 12 years before coming here.”
Mali, whose mother is Thai and whose father is Chinese, grew up around Thai and Chinese food. Her childhood foods are represented at Arloi Dee.
When Mali’s relative was opening a Thai restaurant in Columbus, he wanted Mali in the kitchen. It was not an easy decision, but she answered the call, and traveled halfway around the world alone.
“When my mom left, I was very sad,” Lidaa said. “But I knew she would come get me, and I was excited to come to America too.” Sure enough, Mali and her daughter were reunited within 4 years.
It was in Columbus that Mali met her Preecha.
“He has a doctorate in engineering, and had his own company,” she said. “Now he’s retired, and helps me at the restaurant.”
The family runs the restaurant: Preecha does the administrative work, Lidaa serves as general manager, and Mali heads up the creative force in the kitchen.
Three years ago, the family expanded to West Chester, with Budina, a fast casual Pan Asian restaurant. Budina serves halal beef and chicken, and readily caters to vegans.
The cultures of Thailand’s neighboring nations find their way into the kitchens of Thailand. Some Chinese influence trickles in from the north, and in the south, the Islamic traditions of Malaysia also cross the border.
The regional differences within Thailand further add to the plurality of culinary tastes.
Chinatown in Bangkok, where Mali spent her formative years, is steeped in Chinese traditions. According to Mali, the demographic is more affluent in this part of town, and the food price point is higher. Lidaa cited an example:
“You can get a bowl of noodle soup somewhere else in Bangkok for 20 Baht, but in Chinatown, it’ll probably cost 50 Baht. But the ingredients are better in quality.”
In Thailand, it’s commonplace to eat with the hand, especially when sticky rice is served. Sticky rice, also called “glutinous rice," is a staple in northern and northeastern Thailand. It accompanies every main dish of meat, seafood or vegetables.
“We believe food is more flavorful when you eat with your hand,” Lidaa said.
The food at Arloi Dee has undergone a spicy makeover: The diner gets to choose the spiciness level, on a scale of 1-10. According to Mali, there’s no such thing as a “spiciness scale” in Thailand.
“If the chef makes the food spicy, then it’s supposed to be spicy. The soups are very spicy. Curries are also spicy,” Mali said. Both agree that traditional Thai curries probably rate around 15 on the 1 to 10 spiciness scale.
The Lumsums continue their tradition of celebrating the Thai New Year, which falls on April 13 every year. The new year is marked by the Songkran Festival, where water is thrown at the masses to symbolically wash the bad away. The splashing of water also serves a practical purpose.
“The weather in Thailand is very hot in April,” Lidaa said.
By the way...
Arloi Dee occasionally offers Thai classical dancing on the weekends. This art form is believed to date back to the 14th Century. Thai classical dancers move slowly and deliberately, while framing their arms and hands in graceful curves. Call the restaurant for the dance schedule.