Cover Story

True Thai

by Nathan Stubbs

Pimon Thai may have a new home and a new family owner, but not much else has changed at the restaurant that hooked many in Acadiana on authentic Thai cuisine.

Opening day. Jintana Guillaumin paces through the kitchen, wanting to make sure everything is in its place. It's taken several months and many long hours of planning, cleaning, painting and prepping - most of the work done by her, her family and a few close friends - to get to this point.

The former Mesquite Stop and Shop plate lunch and grocery on Johnston Street hardly resembles its old self. Gone are the giant rusty roasting ovens that sat around the counter that greeted people at the entrance. In its place, a quaint bar. Along its aisles, rows of tables, with perfectly placed red tablecloths weighted down with glass. The Buddha statue, traditional for any Thai business, sits by the cash register, next to a small tray for offerings. Pictures of the king and queen of Thailand and the legendary King Rama V hang on the wall. Masks, tied to Thai mythology, and other tchotchkes are displayed in a cabinet by the front door.

Slight and energetic, Jintana, or Jin, as everyone knows her, is feeling both excitable and apprehensive, unsure about what she has gotten herself into. The year is 1996, and she and her family are taking a giant leap of faith, pouring their time and savings into opening the first Thai restaurant in Acadiana.

In many ways, the odds are stacked against them. Jin has never run or cooked in a restaurant before. The market is untested for the relative newcomers (who have been living in Lafayette just short of 10 years), and many of their potential customers would probably be hard-pressed to locate Thailand on a map. They have done no advertising except for the Pimon Thai and "opening soon" signs out front (Pimon means "heaven" in Thai, and coincidentally is pronounced like piment, the word for "chili pepper" in French).

Clockwise from top: Pimon Thai's Pad Thai,
Tom yum soup, Gang dang (red curry) and spring rolls

But there have been encouraging signs, curious would-be customers stopping in during the renovations, asking when the place would open. Jin's plan is to build the business slowly, customer by customer, trusting in her authentic family recipes and cook-to-order service.

It's 11 a.m, time to open. Jin flips the open sign, unlocks the door and is shocked to see her first customers standing outside waiting. She leans out the door and gasps before running back to the kitchen. The line to get in is wrapped around the side of the building.

"Before it opened I was like, oh my God, who's going to come?" Jin recalls. "We thought we were probably going to have one or two tables. We didn't even know what we were doing really. We didn't have very much [food] prepped."

"We were just hanging on for dear life," adds Jin's son Phillip. "It was utter chaos, but, trial by fire, we learned."

Jin's friends Robert and Norma Billeaudeau remember showing up at the restaurant that evening and being immediately ushered into the kitchen to help prep. "They threw us in the kitchen, and we had to chop," Robert says. "We chopped the onions and bell peppers, whatever she asked us to do we'd do because she was so busy and she didn't have that many workers."

In fact, Robert and Norma went straight to Pimon Thai every day that week after work to help out. "The worst thing she did," Robert says, "she threw a big old box of squid on the table and she showed us how to take the two eyeballs out and there's a bone in there and you would just take your knife and [cut it out]. Bellpepper was a lot easier; I didn't like the squid part too much. We hung up our knives as soon as they had [more] help."

With its launch on Oct. 1, 1996, Pimon Thai enjoyed instant success. In the more than 13 years since, it has become entrenched in the community, prized like several of Lafayette's finer restaurants for its consistent quality and clubby atmosphere.

This January, Pimon Thai had its second grand opening, at a new location farther up Johnston Street in the Johnston Center. It's also starting the year under new ownership. Yet despite these seemingly major transitions, not a lot has changed at Lafayette's premier Thai restaurant.

Eleven months ago, Jin sold ownership to her sister Watana, who also has been a cook with the restaurant since opening day. It's a move that has been in the offing for several years now, with Jin, 64, eyeing retirement in order to spend more time away with her husband, who travels the globe doing safety training for offshore oil operations. For now, Jin is still running the kitchen and says she won't leave before the restaurant is ready and the time is right.

Jin and Watana cut loose in the kitchen

In the process of pulling up stakes from its old encampment in the building marked by a Thai temple spire next to Richard Hebert's Maytag, Pimon Thai closed down for two months at the end of last year. Jin and Watana say the move was necessary due to maintenance issues with the old building, insufficient parking, and increased rent. Jin adds her new landlord, Mae Chow, owner of Chung King restaurant who bought the Johnston Center last year, has been very helpful in making the move easy for Pimon Thai.

Pimon Thai's legacy lives on at its former location, however. When Pimon Thai moved out, two of its cooks stayed behind to debut their own restaurant, Bangkok Thai, in the same building. Bangkok Thai is the second spin-off restaurant from Pimon Thai. Several years ago, a trio of former Pimon Thai cooks opened the more Westernized Thai buffet restaurant, Thai Cuisine on Kaliste Saloom Road.

Despite some glaring similarities in the menus, Jin isn't fazed by the competition and harbors no animosity toward her former employees.

"It's free trade," she says. "I'm still friends with them." Then, quite matter of factly, she adds, "I can guarantee nobody can do curry like me. I can guarantee I'm good over here, so I don't care who else opens up."

A familiar face is still there to greet customers who come in to the new Pimon Thai.

Among its many points of pride, the restaurant has enjoyed a fiercely loyal clientele and wait staff. Both Chas Smith and her sister Hannah have worked as servers at Pimon Thai for eight years running. Even when they're not scheduled to work, they often stop by the restaurant to eat or just hang out.

"Working here isn't like anywhere else," says Chas. "It's like coming home to family."

In the kitchen, Jin is at home, calling out orders, directing traffic with a chef's knife. Watana and the other cooks orbit around her, food flying out of the chaos in perfectly timed order.

Pimon Thai is unlike most Western kitchens. There is no grill. All the cooking is done either in a wok or a pot, sitting on high-powered stove-top burners that can bring water to boil in seconds. The cooking crew is almost entirely female, and all of Thai or Laotian descent.

Like most who work over a hot stove all day, they are loud, boastful, and constantly at play in the kitchen, though you'd be hard-pressed to understand any of the back and forth banter since the only languages spoken are Thai and Lao.

Jin jokes that she has tried to train a few "round eyes" in the kitchen, with little success.

At Pimon Thai, most orders are cooked individually in a wok

"It's much easier to keep the food authentic and to train people who are already familiar with the food," explains Phillip. "All Thai cuisine is based around the balance of hot, sweet, sour and spicy. And that palate doesn't come in one month of training."

Jin and Watana grew up in the town of Nakhon Sawan, in central Thailand, in a large family with six other siblings. "Thailand really is a mixture of cultures," Jin says, "like Acadiana. Central Thailand, in particular, is a melting pot of culinary influences: the spices, coconut milk curries and tropical flavors that dominate southern cuisine, along with the sticky rice, stir fry and ginger soups common along the northern Laos border.

The most pervasive ingredients are the Thai holy trinity of galangal root, lemon grass and kaffir leaf.

One of the long-standing favorites at Pimon Thai is Pad Thai. Stir-fried noodles with eggs, fish sauce, tamarind and red chili pepper, sprouts, chicken or shrimp and a healthy dose of crushed peanuts and fresh lime juice, Pad Thai is a little bit reminiscent of lo mein, the ubiquitous Chinese noodle dish, but brightened with tropical and exotic flavors. It's easy to then move on to delectable glass noodle dishes like Pad Poi Zean, stir fried and traditionally served with pork and shrimp. But noodle dishes are only one aspect of Pimon Thai's offerings.

Jin's curry dishes were ground-breaking when she first offered them in the mid-90s. Curries are often identified as Indian spices with their blend of tumeric, cumin, fenugreek and coriander, but Thai curries open whole new worlds of flavor. First of all, Thai curries don't contain any curry powder. They're frequently made of pounded ingredients like garlic, shallots, chilies, galangal root, shrimp paste, kafir lime and lemongrass. Jin adds coconut milk for sweetness, then layers her famous red curry with eggplant, pumpkin and bamboo shoots.

There are also dishes like Plah Nung Ma Now, Thai-style steamed fish in a lemon sauce that is light and built of pure flavor, or the elemental Kow Tom, rice and ginger soup that aficionados swear by as nutrition on a cellular level.

"Everybody cooked in my family," says Jin. "I picked up different dishes from my mom, my grandmother, my aunt, my uncle. That's what's on the [Pimon Thai] menu."

Jin first came to the U.S. in 1970, after marrying Don Guillaumin, a native of Ville Platte. They met in 1967, while Don was stationed at Tahkli Air Force Base in Thailand, not far from Jin's hometown. Jin worked in the Base Exchange, the servicemen's department store.

It was a whirlwind courtship - one that at the peak of the Vietnam war had its share of controversy. Jin's family convinced her not to rush into marriage as Don was scheduled to ship back to the states. "At that time," Jin says, "the families, they did not want anyone to marry Americans. At that time, it was not popular. So my family said if he really loves you, he will come back, and he came back [the following year] in 1969 and married me."

Phillip Guillaumin prepares an order of Pimon Thai's rice and ginger soup

The couple moved to Chicago, where Phillip was born, but soon found their way back to Don's home state, which had a much more agreeable climate for both him and his wife. Jin also found Louisianians shared a similar passion for food Jin carried with her from her hometown.

"I didn't get an interest to open a restaurant until I [came to Louisiana]. I made a lot of friends here, and when I cook it's a mix of cultures. I adapted Cajun cooking and I love it, etouffée, sauce piquant, gumbo. I mix it up. People would come to my house, and sometimes I cook Cajun food, sometimes I cook Thai food and everybody tells me, they eat everywhere, it's never the same as my food, why don't you open a restaurant?"

One of the families Jin would cook for was the Billeaudeaus.

The native Cajuns recall their first time tasting Jin's Thai food. "The only thing we had around here was the buffets with the Chinese people," says Robert Billeaudeau, "and when we tasted hers it was so different and so good because of the seasoning and a lot of the garlic, that's how the coonasses cook. We were brought up with that type of gravies with garlic and peppers, so it was something that we liked a lot. The taste buds went right into that."

Norma Billeaudeau was especially encouraging of Jin opening a restaurant. "She was so dedicated to cooking," Norma says. "That was her dream. I told her you need to open up the first Thai restaurant in Lafayette."

Thai cuisine has been a natural fit in Acadiana. That's not to say there hasn't been some comic lost-in-translation moments. An all too common mix-up involves the varying degrees of heat with which you can order your food. All dishes come either mild, medium, hot or Thai hot. Often, not knowing the difference, Tabasco-bleeding Cajuns boastfully ignore the warnings of their server and ask that their food be made as hot as possible, prompting more than a few chuckles from the kitchen. (Customers are warned to order their food medium if they want Cajun hot.) After a few bites, their eyes have watered up, and they are pleading for more water.

"Happens all the time," Phillip says. "People don't realize it's a different level of hot." The Thai dragon pepper used in Thai food actually rates about 30,000 Scoville units (used to measure heat levels in different peppers) - higher than cayenne or Tabasco peppers.

LA vegetable plate of eggplant, brussel sprouts,
squash and bok choy (Chinese cabbage).

While Pimon Thai introduced plenty of Cajuns to Thai curry, it also satisfied a long-standing craving for many in the community. Among the restaurant's devotees are Indian, Thai and Laotian immigrants who drive in regularly from as far as Alexandria and Coteau. One American man makes the pilgrimage from Shreveport each month on his motorcycle. "The food and the ride," is what he tells the staff he comes for as he fills his two saddlebags with a gallon of Thai iced tea and between two and four orders of yellow curry.

"A lot of Thai people have been coming out of the woodwork that we didn't even know were here," says Phillip. "And a lot of customers we've had are vets that were stationed [in Southeast Asia]."

Jin adds that many locals, through work with oilfield companies, have traveled to Southeast Asia.

"In this city," she says, "people travel a lot. There's a mix of cultures here, and people know what's authentic."

It's the reason Pimon Thai still prepares its food the same way as the day it opened.

"Before we opened up, we did a lot of research," says Phillip, "and we just found that a lot of Thai restaurants were Westernizing their food, changing the recipes a little bit, adapting to the Western culture. Our No. 1 priority was we weren't going to change it; we were going to do it as authentic as possible. And I think that's been what's kept us in the mix - just sticking to our guns and doing it true Thai."