Ratchanee Sumpatboon on Isan Thai Cuisine and Making It in New York
"I didn't know about the future, I just wanted to try."
Ratchanee Sumpatboon's Larb Ubol is one of those restaurants we just can't truly have enough of in New York. Tucked away on an unattractive part of Ninth Avenue by 37th street, it looks like many other Thai restaurants we'd be fine to walk straight past—the mismatched chairs, nondescript tiled floors and paneled walls were well described by our editor as "adorably tacky." The food, however, is being taken very seriously by local devotees of Isan Thai cuisine, who flock to such spots for its fiery complexity and bright flavors.
Sumpatboon is a worthy contender in the kitchen—she ran a restaurant with her husband in Ubon Ratchathani, which sits near Thailand's borders with Laos and Cambodia. When she moved to New York in 2005, she worked at a Thai restaurant in Queens before opening up Poodam in Astoria. She shuttered that space and went to consult at Zaab Elee in Manhattan, before trying her hand again at her current spot. We sat with Sumpatboon and her manager / assistant / helpful translator Phumin Srisuphansiri (who goes by Kao) to find out how she ended up here and what she's excited to bring to us.
When did you start cooking in New York? 2005, in November. I was working for somebody in a Thai restaurant in Queens, but I've known how to cook for a long time back. I had a restaurant in Thailand for a long time with my ex-husband, and when he died I came to New York.
Did you come specifically because you wanted to cook here? When I came I had no plan, nothing. And my English was so bad and I didn't know what job I would find, so I went to go work in the kitchen of a Thai restaurant. I did everything the same as I did in Thailand, things I can cook by myself. Because I'm from the northeast I don't like things sweet, like most Thai restaurants here. They wanted the full-on American style, but I didn't like it, so I just told Americans if they cannot eat spicy food, to just say it and I could cook for them without chili. I wanted to do everything standard to what I was cooking at home.
What didn't you like about the style you saw here? I didn't like it, but I understand why Americans like it—Americans like things sweeter, and in the northeast we don't eat sweet. We use a lot of herbs, roasted rice, galangal, lemongrass, lime leaf...many things are different than what you'd get in Bangkok—we don't use lemons, we use limes instead, things like that. We do everything fresh. It's bright food. And everyone has the same opportunity to taste, so I wanted to translate what my tastes are like. Other Thai restaurants do a lot of fusion Thai, but I was confident people would like mine, too.
How did you learn to cook? I learned from my ex-husband. He was a very good cook from a family of cooks. We met in Ubon Ratchathani, my home city in Thailand, which was also the name of the restaurant. I only cooked a little bit before—a fried egg omelet or something like that. But I loved to eat, so I loved to try cooking with him! He already had the restaurant when we were married, and at that time I was so young that I just wanted to be together and learn a little bit for fun. I didn't care about it being hard or not. I loved to eat, so I loved to try cooking too.
When did you discover you were talented at it? We were open for five years and by the second year I knew I could do it alone. But then my husband passed away and I needed to move on.
What did you expect to happen when you opened Poodam? Did you think we'd understand your style of food and that you'd be as successful as you were? I didn't know about the future, I just wanted to try. When I opened Poodam on Broadway many American customers came in and knew Isan food! So I thought to myself that not only did people know Thai food, they knew Isan food too, and we would do well. When I put "Isan" on the sign, many, many people came in to say they had been there and talk about it. So I realized how many people know Isan food, and I was right to try it.
What was particularly hard about opening your restaurant here? In Thailand, it's easy to open a business because you have your space and you can just put in a window or anything and open and sell food. Here, when I came, I thought it would be easy, too, and that's why I opened Poodam. I knew I could cook well but I didn't know how to build a business in this city—I didn't know how to shop, about the health department, about many things!
Sometimes the city would come to inspect something and because I don't really know English, I would have to pay somebody to come and help and fix things with me, so it cost me a lot of money. I just pay, pay, pay! So that time I made a loss but now I know how to handle the financials, so I don't lose a lot. I order from Thai sellers and we speak Thai, so that helps now.
Has it been easy enough to get the ingredients you need? Sometimes in the winter it's very hard, but now I know which groceries will last a long time and I order a lot and freeze them. Before in Thailand it was very easy to go the market and always get what I needed, so now I know how to stock up.
Why open in this area specifically, versus trying again in Astoria or someplace more central? There are already a lot of Thai restaurants in this neighborhood. The space was here and affordable, so I figured I'd try it. And there are a lot of Thai restaurants in the area, but our style is completely different than others up in Hell's Kitchen. People are happy that we're here, because most customers had been to Zabb Elee, and now we're one of the only Isan restaurants in the city. Some people know larb, and so they want to know more. That's good—I hope they like it!