Santa Fe's Asian food offerings aren't exactly plentiful, so when I saw the sign for a new Thai restaurant in the old Dara Thai spot on Cerrillos Road, I was excited.
Then I saw the name of the restaurant: Thai Vegan. My heart sank a little bit. No chicken in my coconut curry? No shrimp on the pad Thai? How's this going to work? So, when I sat down in the newly-painted crimson and black interior of the large restaurant at 1710 Cerrillos Rd., I was ready to be disappointed. It turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong.
When I asked the waitress if I could get a side of bacon, she wasn't sure whether I was a supreme idiot or an unconscionable joker. She paused for a beat, then graciously laughed and said "No."
While I expected everything on the menu to feature tofu or peanuts, I had no idea it would also invite me to eat something called "soy chicken." This salty, chewy imposter makes a fine substitute for real poultry.
The red coconut curry, a tried and true test for Thai chefs, made me close my eyes and hum. The cashew stir-fry on my friend's plate was flavorful and light, with a bevy of fresh vegetables that was brightly colored and carefully plated. Both dishes are on the lunch combination special menu ($9.95) and come with a heart-shaped serving of brown rice, a small salad, and two tiny, fried egg rolls. The "freshy rolls" (four for $7.95), comprised of cold noodles, lettuce, basil, mint and other tasty veggies, are served with a miso sauce sweet enough to be reminiscent of molasses.
The restaurant is the third in chain owned by Chef Phairat "Pat" Psomnoi, who before embarking on his restaurant adventure, spent 28 years as a monk. His mother sent him to live at a Buddhist temple in Thailand when he was 11-years-old, and the master with whom he studied there was the monk in charge of vegan meals for the group.
"We had between 300 and 350 monks in our temple and we had a kitchen and we cooked by ourselves," he says, noting that most of the food came from 6 acres the monks cultivated on the temple grounds.
It was just four years ago that Pat —who also holds a Ph.D in sociology —moved to Albuquerque with plans to take a three-month rest. He decided to stay, shortly thereafter opening a restaurant on Osuna Road in the Northeast Heights. Later, he launched the second location in Nob Hill.
Expanding to Santa Fe this fall happened when former Dara Thai owner Ladda Khonphian wanted to close her business after nine years. Less than a month after Dara Thai shuttered its doors, Pat freshened the restaurant interior with a few coats of deep red paint and gold-accented artwork and reopened with a new name and a new game.
"I didn't want it to feel like it was the same restaurant," he says. "We did a deep clean."
But Pat retained Khonphian and other Dara Thai employees to cook and serve. Eventually, he plans to return to Albuquerque and leave the northern operation in their hands, he says.
His motivation to move from monk to vegan chef came after his brother died from cancer. Pat connected the illness to poor diet. "A lot of people are fat and they are terrible about their food," he says. "I want people to know how to take care of yourself and your family for a long, long life."
People, he says, are like cars, and they can be best maintained with a meat-free lifestyle.
"It should be together, your mind and body. You have a good engine, but if you have a flat tire, you cannot go," he says.
Pat is so sure about the benefits of replacing real birds with soy chicken shipped to New Mexico from Thailand that he says if you don't like it, there's no need to pay.
"It's the thinking of my heart," he says, "I want people to know that we should share. It should be not about getting more money. I try to teach the people how to stop the suffering."
11-9 pm Monday- Saturday; Sunday 5 pm-9pm
1710 Cerrillos Road