More than a decade ago, Nunnapat “Pat” Vatanasangpun left Bangkok for New York City, bringing with her the culinary skills she learned from the many years she spent in the kitchen with her mother. “My mother is a good cook,” she says with a thick accent, and “she gave me her special recipes.”
During the 12 years she lived in New York City, Pat worked in downtown Manhattan at a popular restaurant near Columbia University called Thai Market. “I always cooked for my family, but I learned to be a chef in New York,” she says.
There, Pat was introduced to a man who lives in Portland, Maine. She came for a visit and, like many others who crossed over the state line from New Hampshire and read the familiar signage, she ultimately made the decision to “stay for a lifetime.”
Pat has owned Pure Thai Kitchen at 65 College St. in Lewiston, on the corner of Sabattus Street, since May of 2012. Despite the coincidence, she is not related to the owners of the Thai restaurant that previously stood on that corner, Thai Jarearn.
From appetizers to most of her desserts, a visit to Pure Thai Kitchen is as close to an authentic Thai experience as one will find, including the menu, which uses Thai names “so that Americans will get to know Thai food,” says Pat.
Starters on the menu at Pure Thai Kitchen include vegetarian spring rolls and curry puffs made with curried chicken and potato in a puff pastry, as well as crispy fried calamari served with a sweet chili sauce.
Steamed Thai dumplings are a popular appetizer and based on a very old recipe, according to Pat. Made with chicken, radishes and peanut, and wrapped in a delicate, shiny flour-based pastry, the dumplings are served “Thai style, without a dipping sauce, because the taste is already inside,” she says.
New to the starter menu is Duck Pancake. Looking a little like a crepe, Duck Pancake is a thin pancake rolled with succulent duck, “mixed with a secret Thai sauce,” and served with a hoisin sauce mixture.
Although her most popular entrees are the familiar pad Thai, drunken noodles and, in tribute to the ancient name of Thailand, Siam duck, another dish — gra prow kai dow — is also popular. Pat calls it “everyday food in Thailand.” It is made with chicken or pork, basil and birds-eye chili, with a Thai-style fried egg on top, served over jasmine rice.
Gra prow kai dow was very popular in New York, Pat said, and the restaurant where she began her career was the first in New York to serve it. “Now everyone makes it,” she says, and its popularity is growing in the Lewiston-Auburn area as well. Pat’s friend and occasional helper Duranee “Mrs. D.” Suthambhitak says their gra prow kai dow is “just like they make it in Thailand.”
Pure Thai Kitchen offers a variety of curries, including a dish called pumpkin curry, made with chicken, beef or shrimp and bite-sized chunks of pumpkin and carrot in a rich broth of coconut milk, basil and hot pepper. Seasoned with kaffir-lime leaves and krachai, key ingredients in curry pastes, it is colorful, fragrant and spicy.
Other specialties on the menu include skirt steak. This marinated steak is sliced thin and served with sauteed Chinese broccoli and jasmine rice. It is served with a spicy chili garlic puree dipping sauce sprinkled with finely ground sticky rice.
Thai food, says Pat, “is very different from Indian and Chinese food. . . . It’s really spicy.”
Prefer a little less heat? Pat usually makes her offerings “not too spicy, unless that’s how you want it,” she says with a wink of her eye. “Different customers have different tastes,” she adds, and Pure Thai Kitchen can accommodate them all.
The menu includes a variety of vegetarian options, noodles and salads, including green salad, made with green papaya imported from Thailand, tomato, string beans, garlic and a sweet hot-and-sour sauce.
Be sure to save some room for dessert, because this is where Pat likes to mix things up a bit. Pure Thai desserts include fried ice cream served with a red raspberry sauce and set aflame, and a creamy creme brulee.
Mrs. D’s favorite dessert, which isn’t on the menu — yet — is sliced banana and shredded coconut rolled up in a spring roll wrapper and fried. Another popular Thai-style dessert that will appear on the menu as soon as mangos are in season is sweet, sliced mango served atop a bed of sticky rice soaked with sweet coconut milk. For another sweet treat, be sure to try the bubble iced tea.
Pat says she enjoys the pace of life, the ethnic diversity, the cultural opportunities and the friendliness of the Lewiston-Auburn area. The atmosphere in her restaurant is also friendly, and she says she enjoys getting to know her customers.
Pure Thai Kitchen’s menu items are no more than $15 each, with most items in the $8 to $9 range. The lunch menu is even more affordable.
500 grams of shrimp (slightly more than 1 pound)
1 teaspoon red Thai curry paste
2 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 cup pumpkin, peeled, deseeded, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup carrot
1/2 cup green beans, cut into short lengths
6 Thai basil leaves
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
Put 3/4 cup coconut milk into a pot, bring to boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.
Add red curry paste, stir well and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the remaining coconut milk, pumpkin, carrots, green beans, fish sauce and sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring regularly.
Finally, add shrimp, basil and red bell pepper. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for 1-2 minutes. Serve with rice.
Popia thot (fried egg rolls)
500-gram package of egg roll sheets (about 1 pound)
100 grams of mung bean noodles (about 1/4 of a pound)
200 grams ground pork or chicken (about 1/2 of a pound)
100 grams crab meat (about 1/4 of a pound)
1/2 cup shredded cabbage
1/2 cup shredded carrot
1/3 cup (5-6) dried ear mushrooms, chopped and soaked in hot water
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
3 cups cooking oil
Make a paste by mixing 2 tablespoons flour in 1/4 cup water and stirring over low heat.
Soak the noodles until soft, then cut into short lengths.
Mix pork, crab meat, egg, cabbage, carrot, mushroom, pepper, salt and soy sauce together and then add the noodles and mix well.
Fry the garlic in 3 tablespoons of oil and then add the pork and noodle mixture. Fry until fairly dry, then set aside to cool.
Place a tablespoonful of the filling on an egg roll sheet, fold the sheet over the filling, fold about half a turn, fold in the ends and close them, then roll up tightly, sealing closed with the paste.
Deep fry in plenty of oil over low heat until crisp and golden brown.
Serve with sauce, sliced cucumber and sweet basil leaves.
Ingredients for egg roll sauce:
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon chili, well pounded
1 tablespoon tapioca flour mixed in 2 tablespoons of water
Mix the vinegar, water, sugar, salt and chili; heat to boiling. Add a little of the flour water, boil a short time, then remove from heat.