Third South in downtown Salt Lake City between 300 West and 400 West is a treasure trove for food enthusiasts. The block across from Pioneer Park is home to the original Caputo’s Market & Deli, as well as Bruges Waffles & Frites, Carlucci’s Bakery, Aquarius Fish Market, A Priori Specialty Foods, and Cucina Toscana restaurant. Sandwiched in amongst all that great grub is a small space with a walk-up counter: Laan Na Thai.
The kitchen, like the eatery itself, is tiny. But don’t be fooled: the flavors dished out here are big and bold. Many of the menu items originated in northeast Thailand, where the owners hail from. For example, nam tok (“waterfall” in the Thai language) is a salad of tender stir-fried flank steak with lettuce and sticky rice, Thai chilis, shallots, scallions, fish sauce (nam pla), fresh lime and cilantro. It’s a sensational salad.
Behind these fabulous flavors is a lovely immigrant couple, Yupin and Wichai Charoen, who came to the United States in 2009. For six years, Yupin was the chef for Ekamai Thai, which was situated in the same location where Laan Na Thai is now. She has been around food all her life, beginning with helping her mother run a food stand in Thailand when she was young.
In 2016, Yupin and Wichai opened Laan Na Thai, becoming the first SPICE Kitchen entrepreneurs to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. A “food business incubator” focused on creating opportunities for refugees and disadvantaged individuals, SPICE (Supporting the Pursuit of Innovative Culinary Entrepreneurs) Kitchen is a program of the International Rescue Committee in partnership with Salt Lake County, whose mission it is to assist immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged community members in starting full or part-time food businesses.
SPICE provides training to would-be entrepreneurs, provides kitchen space for them to “incubate” their businesses, and, in a nutshell, offers a support system for “graduates” to be able to successfully sustain their own business. Like Yupin and Wichai Charoen. SPICE literally helped make the Thai couple’s dream of owning a restaurant become a reality.
Sometimes luck plays a role in our successes, and Yupin Charoen was lucky that a woman named Grace Henley happened to walk into Ekamai Thai a few years ago, while she was cooking there. The Ekamai owners had decided that they would sell their restaurant and return to Thailand, which devastated Yupin. An immigrant without much in the way of a formal education, she feared she’d never be able to find another job here.
Henley, a regular at Ekamai, saw that Yupin was despondent. Normally cheerful, Yupin feared for her future. To make a long story short, Henley stepped in, got Yupin and Wichai involved with SPICE, and the rest, as they say, is happy history. Laan Na Thai is now a busy and thriving eatery — a favorite drop-in spot for many Thai-loving Salt Lakers.
I’m one of them, and I find their “drunken” noodles irresistible. Wide, pappardelle-style noodles are tossed with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu or shrimp with egg, roasted chili oil, red and green bell peppers, onion, broccoli, carrot, tomato and basil. For under 10 bucks, this dish is other-worldly. I also love Laan Na’s pad ginger, a dish infused with fresh ginger, green and yellow onions, and mushrooms.
For authentic Thai cuisine at street food prices, you should pay a visit to Laan Na Thai and say hello to Yupin and Wichai Charoen. They are a living embodiment of the American dream. §
Laan Na Thai is located at 336 W 300 S, Salt Lake City, 801 363-2717