For Thawarach P Jaicharoensook (nickname: Ott) and partner Sangduen Auesiriwong, the most rewarding part of running Belltown's Bangrak Market — a vibrant feast for all the senses — is when customers report that they feel as if they're walking into Thailand.
"Sometimes when they check in at Bangrak, either on Facebook or Instagram, we see comments from their friends asking them if they are in Thailand," Ott said. "Mission accomplished!!"
Jaicharoensook and Auesiriwong were born in Thailand, but have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Even though they've been here a long time, they still miss the essence of real Thai food and its fun culture.
"We dreamed of creating a place that would truly represent what we missed from Thailand," Ott said.
In order to cultivate a street food ambiance that helps diners feel like they're traveling in SE Asia, they gathered elements that pop to mind when thinking of their home country.
"Our goal was to create a scene that our customers could experience, using as many senses as possible: eating and smelling delicious Thai street food while listening to authentic Thai music."
"We believe that Seattle is ready and wanting an experience like this," Ott said. "Seattle people are very worldly and fun; many are adventurous eaters with a healthy appreciation of other cultures. We wanted to pay them back by giving them the experience of being transported to another country across the world."
The most challenging part has been finding ingredients to make the food authentic. They import many items directly from Thailand, explaining: "The cost of shipping is crazily high, but we have do it!"
Of the many popular dishes, Ott's personal favorites are the Kao Soi Chiangmai Noodle — steamy egg noodle with a choice of meat and curry sauce on top — and their Thai papaya salad ("nice and spicy, sweet sour and crunchy at the same time"). "These are my two comfort foods that I could eat every day."
On the drinks menu, they are currently offering lilikoi or passionfruit margaritas and the Dragonfruit Cosmopolitan, all great complements to the eatery's spicy foods. Another crowd favorite: the spicy basil margaritas and the Princess Cu, featuring vodka and Thai melon.
In order to navigate this past pandemic year-plus, the team adopted a new rotating work schedule in order to keep everyone on staff.
"At first, it was hard because people did not know we were still open, so the beginning was very slow for our waitstaff who depends on tips and gratuities as extra income," Ott said.
Yet, thankfully, business has picked up. Early on, the restaurant also started offering an on-demand delivery service to accommodate for the stay-at-home order plus the many people who converted to remote working.
"This has worked out very well for us," Ott said, "and adding an extra channel for our business to sell food at lunch hour, which before was slower for us." As long as the demand keeps up, they plan on continuing their delivery service.
Yet the staff and customers' health remains the top priority.
"As soon as the vaccine was available, we asked all our employees to [get vaccinated]," Ott said. "This way, we can safely and healthily work together, and also service our customers for the long-run. I felt this was the most important aspect that allowed me to make the best decisions for our business."
"COVID-19 has forced many businesses like mine to reevaluate many things," Ott said, "from business changes like moving to digital formats to [reaching] new customers. The new normal from this is going to be adopting an added layer of health safety and hygiene, hand sanitizer wipes and dispensers, masks worn for kitchen staff, etc. I believe these added precautions will stay or be implemented in the near future, similar to many large metropolitan cities in Asia, where they have experienced and adapted new practices to pandemics before."
That said, the team hopes to leave behind the uneasiness and fear that comes with the pandemic.
"We all operate with a new level of paranoia because of the pandemic, and it can cause unnecessary stressful situations or conflict," Ott said. "Trusting the science is very important."
When it comes to the future, the duo dreams of appearing on Seattle's top "things to do" lists. Once the pandemic is over, they also hope to sell their tasty food on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant — and to host a Thai night market in the summertime, too.
"Like people have to stop at the first Starbucks, and then they have to go Bangrak Market next. We want Seattle to be proud to have us here."
"If you are curious about what eating at a street market in Thailand is like, please visit Bangrak Market," Ott says. "We'll take you there."