Unlike the watered-down menus of restaurant chains, street food remains the ultimate gateway into the culture of the area it originated from. For generations, street food has managed to capture the essence of a city in the most authentic way possible, and each bite functions as a secret that is exclusively shared between locals. However, one restaurant is on a mission to let Columbia in on the secrets of traditional Thai cuisine.
Located in the Vista at the former Columbia firehouse headquarters, the locally owned and operated Kao Thai Cuisine wants to share Thai culture from a firsthand source. While the restaurant's menu contains dishes familiar to American audiences such as pad thai, Kao's main goal is to bring authentic Thai street food to the forefront, rather than Americanized imitations.
Kao Thai Cuisine was established last summer by owner and Bangkok native Gai Wilson. Wilson owns two successful Thai restaurants in Greenville, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina, but when she was preparing for her next venture, she wasn't quite sure about the location.
It was her daughter, Sunshine Cobb, who inspired her to bring a taste of Thailand to the Vista.
"She was like 'what about Lexington, what about the Northeast?' I'm like no, if we're gonna do it, I wanna do it in the Vista. I want it to be high profile," Cobb said.
Cobb is a graduate of both the business and public health school at USC and currently works at Lexington Medical Center during the day while managing her mother's restaurant at night. Having obtained two degrees from USC, Cobb considers Columbia her home and made her mother promise to open her new restaurant here.
While Cobb acknowledges that some may have the preconception that cities like Charlotte and Charleston are more desirable, she believes that Columbia has the potential to compete on their level.
“I think it's gonna take local businesses, kind of like us, to be able to make that happen and really have people invest time and money and effort into revamping the Vista and that area," Cobb said.
Fellow USC graduate and part-owner Kevin Simpson agrees, and credits the authenticity of the food for the restaurant's business thus far.
“Building a brand in Columbia is tough just 'cause there's a lot of established restaurants that draw a lot of that business," Simpson said. "That's why we're trying to have to set ourselves apart, to be able to draw some of that business. But really the main thing that has carried us so far is the food."
The authenticity of the food isn’t a gimmick, nor a false promise. For instance, when customers first walk in, plastered on the walls of the restaurant are pictures Cobb took on her most recent travels to Thailand. She hopes the images will give customers an "insider look" into Thailand.
Like Wilson, Kao’s head chef Boyd Leetrakul was also born and raised in Thailand, but is traditionally trained in French cuisine. Since studying at universities in Thailand, Leetrakul has cooked in Thailand, Dubai and now Columbia. Having already been an executive chef, his new dream is to operate a Michelin-starred restaurant of his own one day.
Although he still enjoys cooking French cuisine at home, Leetrakul is well versed in the cuisine of his home country and believes that this translates to his food. He said that the restaurant has its ingredients shipped directly from Thailand to Atlanta every month, and the preparation for some dishes involve six hours of marination. Still, he believes that there is more to food than how it tastes.
“I would like to do nice presentation. It’s not just only the taste, but the food should be eye, hear, smell and taste," Leetrakul said.
More than anything, Cobb hopes that Kao’s menu can combat stereotypes some people might have about Asian cuisine. According to Cobb, Thai cuisine contains five central flavors: salty, sweet, spicy, savory and sour, and the menu at Kao strives to find a balance.
"I want people to leave with a little bit more open perspective on Asian food and Thai food. I think people automatically assume that it's really spicy or they're scared of it, so we wanted it to be more approachable," Cobb. "We want it to be something where anybody can find something they like."
For Cobb, Kao Thai Cuisine is more than a restaurant. For those who can't travel to Thailand, Cobb hopes that their restaurant brings Thailand to them because it is her travels that have made her more open-minded towards other cultures.
"Travel just gives you a different perspective and it really helps you understand other people. And that's kind of how it almost breeds compassion," Cobb said.
Kao Thai Cuisine is currently applying to be an off-campus merchant and will accept CarolinaCards in the future.