LOVELAND, Ohio - This weekly 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 to the Tri-State.
Zab Thai Kitchen
Where: 10667 Loveland Madeira Road, Loveland
Call: (513) 774-7800
Food: Authentic home-style Thai food
Prices: Entrees range from $11 - $17
Simple yet authentic stir-fried noodles take center plate at Zab Thai Kitchen. The national stir-fry of Thailand, pad thai, is a mouthwatering party of rice noodles, egg, bean sprout, onion, scallion, peanuts, turnip, and a choice of tofu, shrimp or other meat.
The three signature tastes of sweet, salty and sour appeal to a wide array of customer taste buds. Clear bean thread noodles are the star in a dish called woonsen. The noodles are stir-fried with colorful cohorts: wood ear mushroom, carrot, celery, scallion, onion, cabbage and egg.
Zab Thai Kitchen's customers are also crazy about curry. Classics like panang curry, green curry and massaman curry proudly grace the menu. The curries stay authentic to their roots; for example, the panang version is well-sauced but not soupy, and the massaman variety is made with beef that has been patiently braised for more than four hours.
Meet the owners: Toon & Cindy
What is the probability that the chef at Zab Thai Kitchen has a degree in statistics? In the case of Paendin Yongkanaysin (above, left), the chef and co-owner of Zab Thai Kitchen, 100 percent.
Yongkanaysin goes by her nickname, Toon, given by her mother.
"Most Thai people have two names: a formal name, and a nickname given by their family or close friends. It's usually a short version of the first name," Toon explained. Toon's nickname means Libra, reflecting her astrological sign.
Even with her number-crunching expertise, the tough economy in Thailand made it extremely hard for Toon to find a job in her field, so she took a different path, traveling to Australia to work for a family friend who was opening a restaurant.
“That was my first commercial cooking experience," Toon recalled. "Cooking for the family is very different from cooking in a restaurant."
After Toon's stint in Australia, another restaurant opportunity opened up--this time in Cincinnati, where she met Srinuan Yantarasri, who goes by her nickname, Cindy (above, right). Born in Bangkok, she came to the United States to pursue a degree in business at Harold Washington College in Chicago.
She met her husband there, a man who dreamed of owning his own business. They ventured to Cincinnati and opened Bangkok Thai Cuisine in Milford in 1998. That success prompted the opening of a second restaurant in 2000, Beluga, an upscale Asian restaurant and sushi bar in Hyde Park in 2000.
Toon came to Cincinnati to work at Bangkok Thai Cuisine, and eventually worked her way up to the chef position at Beluga. Cindy said Beluga did not escape the jaws of the 2007 recession. When it closed in 2011, Toon and Cindy teamed up to open Zab Thai Kitchen.
“I wanted to go back to affordable home-style cooking where people can keep coming back,” Cindy explained. Toon is happy doing what she loves.
"I pursued science in college because my family believed science would give me a good career. I did everything they wanted, but now I am doing what I want," she smiled.
Cultural flavor: "Bold and tasty"
"The root of my food is my grandmother. It is not fancy, but authentic food my grandmother made and taught me in my childhood," Toon said. "My food is not bland. It is bold and tasty."
Toon tries to pass a little Thai culture along to her customers through food.
"Some people think curry has to be spicy all the time, or must be creamy, but that's not always true. There are some foods that are not spicy. We do use coconut milk in many of our curries because the ingredient is widely available in Thailand. But a curry like jungle curry does not contain any coconut milk," Toon explained.
Garlic is central to Thai cooking.
"Garlic is present in every meal. The basic paste has garlic, shallot, kaffir lime leaf, galangal and lemongrass," Toon said. "We add a lot of fresh ingredients and some spices, but not a lot of spices like Indian cuisine."
Both Toon and Cindy explained that contrary to some assumptions, chopsticks are not common at the Thai table.
"Most people don’t understand we use a fork and a spoon, not chopsticks. We use the fork to push the food on to the spoon, even when we eat noodles."
By the way... "Drunken noodles"
Zab Thai Kitchen offers a stir-fried noodle dish, called kee mao (pictured above). The name translates to drunken noodles, because, according to Toon, "It was created by people who came home drunk and hungry. They looked at what they had in their kitchen, and threw in all the vegetables and spices in this dish."
The eatery recreates this boisterous but delicious dish using wide rice noodles and mixed vegetables, stir-fried
in Thai basil chili sauce.