Having grown up in smaller cities during the pre-culinary America era, the last few decades, for me at least, have been a psychedelic deliverance from the doldrums of Big Boy, Sizzler, egg foo young, and cardboard pizza. The accompanying historical landscape of the period —colored by preemptive and proxy military actions and psychopathic financial tactics used by the West to ensure global economic hegemony—has contributed to the droves of immigrants and refugees who have so graciously enriched the cultural and culinary fabric of our great land. Sure, we’re a land of possibilities, but it’s hard not to feel a little conflicted about our appreciation of an incredible array of cuisine options.
Eddie Keomahathai landed in Charlottesville from northeast Thailand with his family in 1976, at age 11. He was the eldest of three kids and, since both parents worked, his mom started teaching him how to cook as soon as they arrived here so he could help feed the family. Eddie and his family were not officially refugees, but his father was working for the U.S. military on an American air base in Thailand when the Yanks decided to pull out. Eddie’s father was given the opportunity to relocate his family to Virginia, as opposed to staying behind to see how things played out for a former employee of the U.S. military after the U.S. abandoned its efforts in Southeast Asia.
Eddie took to life in Virginia, learning a new language, a new way of living. He graduated from Charlottesville High School and licked off to Averett University in Danville to study art.
He opened Thai ’99 on Fontaine Avenue in 1999, using recipes he had been cooking for his family since he was 11 years old. “I found out though,” Eddie said, as we stood in the middle of a bee hive of pre-lunch prep work going on in the kitchen, “that it’s different in a restaurant.”
Eddie’s aunt, who operated a successful Thai restaurant in Loudoun County, came down to help with the menu and train the kitchen staff—Eddie, his wife Pat, and his mom—how to do things at restaurant speed.
Eddie and his family responded to the steep learning curve and got up to speed quickly. “It took about a week,” Eddie said. “Otherwise, you’re not going to be in business.”
On my first visit to Thai ’99, I ordered the pad ped with chicken. It burst with layers of flavor, so I haven’t ever tried anything else. Eddie agreed to show me how his pad ped is made.
He started with soy oil in a sauté pan on medium heat. When it got just warm enough, he dolloped in a heaping tablespoon of red curry paste—dried chilies, garlic, lemon grass, kaffir lime, cumin, coriander seed, cardamom, and galangal root. “The secret to this thing,” he said, holding the curry, “is you’ve got to get it at about medium heat and stir it when it bubbles up. The oil educes the flavor from all types of ingredients,” he explained. Once the curry dissolved, giving the oil a lovely red speckling, he brought in shredded bamboo shoots and chunks of pre-blanched white chicken meat. He let the oil and curry cook into that for a couple minutes.
I expected much more pop and sizzle, even flashes of flame leaping from under a huge wok, but it was all quite mellow, so as to allow this complex concoction of tastes to infuse the meat.
Then Eddie ladled on 1.5 ounces of a combination of oyster sauce, white soy sauce, and soy-based Golden Mountain seasoning sauce, which had all been reducing over a low flame. He added a half teaspoon of white sugar, to balance any bitterness in the curry, and set it back over medium flame. Then came fresh slices of red and green bell peppers. He asked me if I liked it hot.
He threw in a pinch or two of freshly sliced-open red and green Thai chilies, grown in the garden behind the restaurant, then added an ounce of chicken stock, let some liquid cook off the whole thing, and laid it out on a plate next to perfectly steamed white rice.
Pad ped is such a dynamic combination of tastes that it takes your buds a couple bites to detect them all and let them fuse. It’s a stimulating food of savory sauces, tangy curry, crisp veggies, chili spice, and firmly cooked chicken.
Eddie (who is no longer associated with Thai ’99 II on Gardens Boulevard) will open Bangkok ’99 in the Village Green Shopping Center on Commonwealth Drive in a few weeks. His younger cousin recently arrived from southern Thailand, an area where the cuisine is influenced by Malaysian and Indian cooking. “They have about eight different kinds of curry over there,” Eddie said of his cousin’s home region. “This kid can cook. He’s a younger version of me.”
While we may see some southern Thai specials at Eddie’s restaurants, he said he will be sticking with the tried and true menu that has served him and his customers (who he wanted to be sure to thank) over the years.