The word “buffet” evokes a myriad of reactions from diners ranging from the positive to the not-so-much. Some might recall the days of the Shoney’s breakfast bar and the favorite phrase for many — all-you-can-eat. The visual of famished diners bellying up to a buffet is not a good one, but I am happy to report that positive buffet experiences are still alive in the Triad.
At Taste of Thai, the lunch buffet is a long-standing tradition. Loyal customers have been coming for decades for the lunch time special which by all accounts is the deal-of-the-week (11:30-2 p.m. - $7.95). The sheer amount of choices — 12 entrees plus salads, soup and appetizers is matched by the quality. Food that is as fresh as possible is the goal of the hard working Mr. “Joe” Thoopsamoot who goes to local markets twice each day.
To try it for myself I met a friend at the revered lunch buffet. Arriving just as the buffet opened, I was overwhelmed with choices from Pad Thai (Thailand’s favorite noodle), tofu dishes, ground chicken with basil, crab fried rice, beef mussamun (stew), glass noodle salad, curry dishes, shrimp dim sum, sushi and much more.
Not to be intimidated I soldiered on and tried to delicately load my small plate. I only partially succeeded. Aromatic and deliciously fresh meats, vegetables, spices and herbs blend into dishes for one of the best buffet experiences I have had. My first small plate quickly turned into a second one. Therein is the buffet dilemma – how to try a variety of dishes without overdoing.
The food we are eating is primarily Thai but Chinese influence is found in dishes such as Kung Pao chicken on the regular menu. Lunch and dinner specials reflect a large and diverse menu. Dishes are cooked to order without M.S.G.
Taste of Thai is one of only a few Asian restaurants serving dim sum. Served on the dinner menu, the restaurant also has weekend dim sum specials for those who like appetizer sized food. Dim sum reflects a style of Chinese cuisine prepared as small bite-sized portions of food served in small steamer baskets or on small plates.
Richard Koritz could be considered a Taste of Thai groupie for his dogged dedication to the restaurant and owner, Joe Thoopsamoot, who he has followed to two restaurants including Joe’s previous restaurant on Tate Street. Koritz was enjoying his weekly buffet ritual and was eager to share his thoughts. “When Taste of Thai opened twenty years ago or more, the freshness of the food and its relatively inexpensive price were amazing,” said Koritz.
“As the restaurant’s first mailman, I immediately began eating the lunch special there four-days-a-week. Soon I began coming here for dinners with my wife on a night out. I had one other route for about two years before I retired. But my wife and I stayed as regular, loyal customers. More often than not, I have felt privileged to enjoy a feast of myriad tastes and presentations and I still feel this way. My biggest challenge is to refrain from eating the buffet here more than once per week.”
Joe joined us while we were eating, and little-by-little he talked about his restaurant, clearly a labor of love. The days are long (13-hours) for the soft spoken 79-year old who works 7-days-a-week. He admitted it is tiring but he doesn’t mind. Taste of Thai is his child —demanding but rewarding. His affection for the restaurant where he spends most of his waking hours is evident. It is not a job; it is his life, and Joe has no plans to retire.
Joe’s steady hand oversees the running of the restaurant, shopping for ingredients and guiding the staff, some of whom are family. His son-in-law is a cook and his son and daughter are both involved in the restaurant. Three cooks each have a specialty —appetizers, curry and stir fry and Chinese dishes. He tells us that he never cooks at the restaurant but he cooks at home where everyone calls him “father.”
In between trips to the buffet, we get a little history lesson of how Joe came to America. First, he tells us, his real name is not Joe. A manager in his first job in Manhattan could not pronounce his Thai name, Prasert. They went down a list of American names — John, Jack, Joe and Joe stuck.
Working on a student visa, he eventually returned to Thailand. Years later at a family members’ prompting, he moved to Greensboro to start his own restaurant. He brought his wife, who is Chinese, and his family to the place that now feels like home.
Presentation and aesthetically pleasing dishes are important to the Thai people who specialize in appealing to all the senses with colorful entrees with green, leafy herbs, generous portions and aromatic dishes. And, prices are the same as when the restaurant opened some 19 years ago on Mill Street. Why you ask? Joe wants to keep customers happy and coming back.
For a sweet ending to the meal, Joe brings out an unassuming dessert of sticky rice and vanilla ice cream made with coconut milk. The delicious combination is a favorite street food in Thailand. The dish sounds like a marriage of polar opposites but it works.
For those new to Thai food, know that the quality and choice of street food in Thailand is world-renowned. Bangkok is often mentioned as one of the best street food cities in the world, and has been called “the street food capital of the world.”
In our small corner of the world we are happy that we can count on Taste of Thai. As sure as the sun comes up every morning, we have the same assurance with this Asian institution. Consistency on the plate is there every time—delicious, fresh and served up with enduring love for his customers by Mr. Joe.