FAIRBANKS -- The Interior community of Fairbanks is known for its endless summer days, brutal winter temperatures, and . . . Thai food?
Fairbanks' Thai food phenomenon is well-known to locals. Thai restaurants continue to pop up and strike their claim in the community, sometimes just blocks from each other. Fairbanks is becoming known as the place to eat Thai, said Amy Geiger, director of communications at Explore Fairbanks Alaska.
“Anchorage definitely knows that,” Geiger said.
For many visitors, a trip to Fairbanks isn’t complete until one has eaten Thai food. Thai House Restaurant recently began opening its doors on Sundays after tour groups requested it stay open for travelers who only have one day in town. “The tours, they want to eat Thai food,” server Joy Gryska said at the downtown restaurant in early July.
At least 14 Thai restaurants are open for business in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Some have been around for decades, others just a few years. Their numbers far outweigh Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese cuisine in the city.
In downtown Fairbanks, three Thai restaurants sit within blocks of each other. Others are scattered throughout the community and neighboring North Pole. The Tanana Valley Farmers Market and Tanana Valley State Fair also have Thai vendors, Geiger said.
There are even drive-thru Thai restaurants -- Sam's Taste of Thai in the Goldstream Valley on the western edge of town, Simply Thai Drive-Thru near the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Thai and Chinese To Go, on the Old Steese Highway.
“How many (places) have drive-thru Thai food?” Geiger laughed.
'My mind was changed'
The Thai House Restaurant was the first to bring Thai food to Fairbanks, in 1989. It moved from a downtown hole-in-the-wall location to a larger building on Fifth Avenue seven years ago. The décor is decked out with Thai murals, pictures of the Thai king and queen, and statutes of Buddhist deities.
Thai House serves, on average, 300 meals a day, owner Laong Boonprasert said at the restaurant in early July. During prime dinner times -- 6 p.m. most days of the week -- customers wait to be seated. Reservations are necessary on the weekends, Gryska said.
Two years ago, Tiparos Thai Food took the place of a different Thai restaurant that had opened across the street from the Thai House. But close competition hasn’t dampened demand. “Business is still good,” Gryska said.
Boonprasert recounted how the restaurant got started, and how it continues to flourish amid the growing number of Thai restaurants.
Laong’s late husband Charlie Boonprasert began working at a Chinese restaurant in Fairbanks in the 1980s, after initially coming to Alaska to work in a gold mine. Laong was still living in Thailand when he floated the idea of opening the first Thai restaurant in the community.
Laong wasn’t sold. She told him that if he went forward with his plans, “I’m gonna divorce you,” she laughed. Two months later, he told her he was planning to purchase the Chinese restaurant and transform it into Thai House. “I’m really gonna divorce you,” she told him.
She thought Fairbanks was far too cold for any sane person. “Crazy people stay here,” Laong said. “And now I’m more crazy.”
Laong refused to visit at first. Yet when she came over in the 1990s, she saw how hard her husband was working, and how much customers loved both him and the food. “My mind was changed,” she said.
She agreed to move to Fairbanks for two years. “And then two years, and then two years,” she said.
Now, she’s been in Fairbanks for 26 years, and she said she is never leaving. “I love Fairbanks,” she said.
Charlie Boonprasert passed away six years ago, Laong said as she pointed to his portrait hanging on one of the walls. She and her two daughters have now been left in charge of the business. The restaurant uses Charlie’s original recipes, and that will never change, she said. Boonprasert sometimes cooks alongside the chefs and helps to serve the customers if needed. She said the regulars are “like family.”
The cuisine hails from the central region of Thailand, server Joy Gryska said. All the meals are authentic to the Bangkok area, she said -- except not quite as spicy.
Owners of many newer Thai restaurants used to work at Thai House, Boonprasert said. Lemongrass Thai Cuisine is a good example. The family-owned restaurant opened in 1996, after Tutu Navachai brought his family to the Interior community and decided to start up on his own.
Lemongrass is located in a strip mall on the western side of Fairbanks. Like Thai House, Lemongrass is brightly decorated, lined with Thai instruments and art pieces. The restaurant’s location -- out of the way of other Thai restaurants -- has been a boon for business, Tutu and son Natt Navachai said in early July. Although it doesn’t have the advantage of tourists strolling in from downtown, its steady stream of regulars, along with visitors who tag along with family friends, keep the restaurant afloat.
Like Charlie Boonprasert, Tutu Navachai first came to Alaska in 1989 to work in a gold mine. He started working at Thai House a few years later, and then opened Lemongrass in 1996, in the same strip mall where it is today.
The family hails from Chiang Mai, where elder brother Gor Navachai opened a restaurant by the same name in 2007.
Lemongrass serves a mix of regional cuisines, the owners said. Lighter northern dishes and heavier southern dishes stand side-by-side on the menu. Lemongrass is quick to tout its use of Alaska seafood and Alaska-grown produce as one quality that makes its food stand out from the competition.
Their use of local products is indicative of a larger trend, Natt said. “This whole town is working in a good direction in terms of working with local farmers,” he said.
'A big push for us'
Thai restaurants continue to open and they rarely shut down, Tutu Navachai said. While he said he feels there are too many Thai restaurants in Fairbanks, “they can make it,” Tutu laughed. “They’re tough.”
“The competition sure is a big push for us to redefine ourselves and differentiate ourselves,” Natt Navachai said.
To keep pace with the competition, Lemongrass is responding to its customers’ evolving dietary desires. “We have to try to change the food,” Tutu said.
A trend toward healthier dishes is prompting Lemongrass to tweak its recipes. “Right now we have a lot of vegans who come in,” Tutu said, as well as customers asking for gluten-free food.
For Thai House, sticking with its decades-old recipes is how it hopes to outshine competitors. Regulars have come to expect a certain taste, Boonprasert said.
Boonprasert agreed there are “too many Thai restaurants” in the community. Increased competition means every dish has to be made well, every time, she said.
Gryska noted that the Thai community in Fairbanks knows each other well and spends time together on the weekends. They came to Fairbanks separately, Gryska said, and find a bustling Thai community when they arrive.
When Thai families settle in Fairbanks and see the success other businesses have had, “They say ‘Oh, I can do it,’ ” Tutu said. “That’s why we have too many. We keep growing and growing and growing.”
Ratchanee Munmoha owns Simply Thai Drive-Thru, which she opened in 2008 after urging from her husband and a friend.
She said she believes many in the Thai community chose to start their own businesses because “It’s flexible. You can be your own boss and try to manage time for yourself, time for family, and I think that’s what many people expect.”
Munmoha said that while her food is similar to offerings at other restaurants, the convenience of her drive-thru keeps business steady. Parents with small children and handicapped folks often chose to eat her food because it’s the easiest option, she said.
Restaurants say that regardless how many new places pop up, the demand keeps pace. A shift toward healthful eating has only helped to boost business, Gryska said.
“It seems like the community opened up for Thai food,” Munmoha said; Fairbanks residents have responded positively to the spicy, flavorful and healthy dishes.
The comparative lack of alternative Asian foods also “kind of leaves the vacuum,” allowing Thai restaurants to prosper, Natt Navachai said.
Amy Geiger said each restaurant has its niche, allowing enough variety for each restaurant to flourish. In addition, “I believe that Alaska in general has more international travelers and people who are willing to eat a lot of Thai food,” Geiger said.
Regardless of the restaurant, some say eating Thai food in Fairbanks sets high standards that are hard to match elsewhere.
“When I leave Fairbanks, I miss the Thai food,” Geiger said.