Kay Soodjai and her sister-in-law Supatra Yooto opened the Golden Room in Montrose 27 years ago. Last year they replaced the venerable Golden Room with Khun (Madame) Kay Thai Café (1209 Montrose), with a fast-casual concept and less expensive meals. Supatra, who describes herself as more of an "old-fashioned" Thai cook, offered some translation assistance as Kay was interviewed.
How did you get started in the restaurant business? I worked for Chinese and Thai restaurants in Houston, Chicago, Little Rock and Los Angeles. I had gone to FM Cooking School in Bangkok. My brother had a restaurant, but I didn't work there. I first came to the US to study business at the College of the Ozarks in Little Rock.
You started the Golden Room in the current location of Khun Kay in 1982. How did Houstonians take to Thai food then? They loved it, but the menu was originally mostly Chinese. I only added Thai food gradually, as specials. The customers were becoming more interested in Thai cooking. After four years, the menu was all Thai.
What are the differences between Thai and Chinese cooking? The Thai food I make uses more herbs, spices, peppers. We also use lots of lime and coconut milk. Chinese food has more oil and relies on corn starch for thickening sauces.
Why did you demolish the Golden Room and build Khun (Madame) Kay in its place? Golden had a bad foundation. It was an old duplex, and there were cracks everywhere in the building. It would have cost more to fix the foundation again and all structural damage than to build new.
Why did you switch from more formal dining to a casual, order-at-the-counter approach? The economy is bad -- and people don't really care. They want to have food faster. They say, "Easy come, easy go." They want to wear shorts. I cut down on the portions and the prices, but the quality is the same as before.
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How do your menu options differ from "authentic" Thai cuisine? We used to participate in the International Food Fair at College of the Ozarks every year. We learned the taste of American people--what they would eat. That doesn't mean we changed everything. Every year we offer special anniversary dishes off the menu. These are authentic Thai dishes we have people taste, then we see the reaction and can change them for the regular menu if we need to.
What are your favorite dishes at Khun Kay? Nam sod. The marketing people told us to call it "Thai taco"; it's chopped chicken breast with fish sauce, lime juice, ginger, green onion, cilantro, roasted peanuts, wrapped in lettuce or cabbage. Very popular. Very healthy.
What's difficult about your work? Thai food is difficult. You have to pay attention, to use the right things. I pick up the food myself, from Airline or from Sysco or Restaurant Depot. If I can't find the right thing, I go somewhere else. It has to be fresh.
Are there any new items on the menu? We had Halloween curry, with Thai pumpkin. For Thanksgiving, we have deep-fried cod with curry and vegetables, because we're getting close to winter. Another dish coming up is "thaikey," turkey with red curry and noodles. We change food with the seasons. You know, there are people who can't afford to pay a lot. We have $3.99 special for them, chicken fried rice and others. We've been here 27 years, and we like to do something for people who can't pay regular price.