Warm dishes, rich history
An exploration and explainer of local Thai food staple dishes
By Josh Koerner
Back in the 90s, Green Bay’s food landscape was mostly barren. Beyond a few taco spots and some Asian buffets, there was little in the way of diversity. In the early 2000s, however, this landscape shifted. New, varied restaurants hit the scene and there was a boom of cultural cuisine.
In the past two decades, one of the city’s most notable culinary upticks has been Thai restaurants.
While Green Bay may have seen Thai food in small niche markets beforehand, Bangkok Gardens (240 North Broadway) marked a milestone for the area. Since its opening in 1998, the Broadway eatery is still going strong as one of the longest-running restaurants in the city.
In its wake, Thai markets and restaurants alike have sprung up across the city. Some notable mainstays include Nukeo Thai (1350 Marine St) and Plia’s Kitchen (1300 S Webster Ave), while newer venues like PhoComa (154 N Broadway), Narin’s Thai Kitchen (1981 E Mason St), Thong’s Authentic Thai Restaurant (1742 E Mason St) and Arkhan Oriental and Deli (318 S Broadway) have planted their flag in recent years.
An explosion of interest in Thai cuisine is not limited to Green Bay or even the United States. A June 2021 report from Bangkok Post outlines how Thailand’s food industry experts have seen significant global growth in food exports since the 2000s. In fact, this report predicts Thailand to be the leading exporter of food by 2027, despite disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the tasty food, globalism and “foodie” culture—you know, the people who just take pictures of their food and post about it—could be a root cause for this growth, the catalyst lies in Thailand’s innovative approach to global diplomacy.
According to a February 2002 report by the Economist, Thailand spent the early 2000s launching a geopolitical campaign, Kitchen to the World.
This campaign was focused on revitalizing the world view of Thai food with the belief that having a recognized food culture would improve tourism and foreign relations. As a part of the campaign, the government of Thailand began to fund education in the culinary arts as well as basic business practices for those who sought to travel abroad. They also funded a program called the Thai Select Award in which government officials personally travel to successful culinary diplomats to thank them for their service and give them national recognition.
The Kitchen of the World diplomacy Thailand wields has caught on with other cultures and is now known as gastro diplomacy, a public relations campaign that invests in building economic and social bridges through food.
Another notable gastro diplomacy program followed in Thailand’s footsteps in 2008 with the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO). The JRO is likely to thank for the popularity of sushi in today’s food market, buffets and gas stations.
While the idea of spreading cultures through food has existed throughout the dawn of humankind, one problem has always been trusting new audiences to expand their horizons. There is no expectation when it comes to Thai food and the most daunting part of any Thai menu is the ocean of diverse options to sift through when you crack open a menu. Luckily for you, Green Bay has a plethora of options to dig into.
Let’s start with the basics
Pad Thai is perhaps one of the most recognizable Thai dishes to a typical American consumer, Pad Thai typically features a unique sauce that is focused around the flavor of tamarind paste and its unique complement to the popular peanut garnish. This sauce is accompanied by thin rice noodles, bean sprouts and a chef’s choice of vegetables.
The dish takes on a savory sweetness that compliments all of its to all of its components. While this dish is a solid go-to almost anywhere, my favorite comes from Thong’s Authentic Thai, which swaps rice noodles for fried wontons in an inventive interaction.
Pad Kee Mao, less formally known as drunken noodles, more literally translates to “noodles for someone who is constantly drunk.” There are several urban legends behind the creation and nomenclature of this dish. My personal favorite tale is that the dish as a whole was the result of an inebriated culinary adventure. As no two local restaurants make the dish quite the same, I almost like to believe that each chef individually created their version in a whirlwind of creativity and alcohol. Nevertheless, a few staples of the dish remain static through the variations. The dish always comes complimented with a good amount of spice, and it always uses the big, flat noodles that are consistent with Pad See Ew.
My favorite local drunken noodles come from Plia’s Kitchen. Akrhan Deli takes a soy forward approach to the dish while Thong’s takes a decidedly fresh, organic take. All three of them are worth the visit.
Pho, a Vietnamese invention pronounced “fuh,” is available at many Thai restaurants throughout the city. It became widely popularized in America over the last decade and is heralded as a cure-all soup in many cultures and communities. Perhaps most notoriously, Pho is said to clear up a hangover in just one bowl while also toting an ability to cure the ill. If Pad Kee Mao is the noodles of the drunk, Pho is what he eats the next morning.
Pho consists of beef bone broth, bean sprouts, thinly sliced beef, rice noodles, vegetables and cilantro. Tripe is also a common ingredient, though most restaurants feature tripe optionally. Outstanding Pho can be found at Arkhan Deli and Plia’s Kitchen, though even the worst bowl of pho is still pretty darn good.
Tom Kha Gai is my favorite among Thai soup dishes. Spicy, sweet, and just a bit sour, Tom Kha is a chicken and mushroom soup with a spic coconut broth, typically flavored with lemongrass and a spicy floral root from the ginger family called galangal. Paired with a range of vegetables, Tom Kha is sure to be a flavor experience you will not soon forget.
In the past, I’ve been partial to Nukeo’s Tom Kha as it was my first introduction to the wonderful dish, but in recent weeks, I’ve been digging the authentic flavor and feel of Thong’s Tom Kha.
Now that you’re armed with a basic knowledge of the taste and flavors of Thai dishes, you should be able to stand your own when you crack open a menu. Thai food is a doorway into another culture and who knows, maybe while you’re fighting off Winter blues or New Year’s Day ailments, you’ll be supporting global diplomatic relations, once slurp at a time.
Josh Koerner grew up in De Pere and has a passion for local food. He’s written for The NEWcomer and Nosh Green Bay alongside his personal Facebook food blog, Josh Eats Green Bay.