Sandy Buakhieo had no experience in the restaurant industry when she opened Thai Bistro. But she had experienced plenty of allergies and sensitivities to food.
"When I started eating certain foods all the time, they got worse," Buakhieo says.
Because Buakhieo, 55, knows how challenging it can be for people like her to eat in restaurants, she's removed the highest hurdles in her 12-year-old Medford establishment and broadened the definition of health to numerous special diets: vegetarian and vegan, as well as soy-, wheat- and gluten-free — even salt- and sugar-free.
"I have one lady that doesn't eat any salt or sugar," Buakhieo says. "It's really important for customers to let us know what they can't have."
Catering to a clientele for whom menus can be minefields requires intimate knowledge not only of food preparation but also commonplace seasonings, such as soy sauce. Most brands contain wheat, one of three grains that cause a life-threatening autoimmune reaction in sufferers of celiac disease. So Buakhieo buys wheat-free sauce, along with purer versions of oyster and bean sauces commonly used in Asian cuisines.
"It does take a little time to find something comparable that has a good flavor," she says, adding that she's driven to Eugene and Portland to find items that couldn't be brought to her. "You really have to look at the ingredients."
Thai Bistro reassures patrons by preparing dishes entirely from scratch to their specifications, whether it's as strict as eliminating the cooking oil or merely accommodating a preference for certain vegetables.
"They're able to kind of pick and choose what they want and need," Buakhieo says.
Unconventional choices distinguish Thai Bistro's menu from other local restaurants of its genre. Customers can select brown rice — a whole grain — or refined white rice to accompany most dishes. The former is so popular that Buakhieo can hardly keep enough on hand, an about-face since she introduced brown rice several years ago to an unreceptive audience.
"People will even order their fried rice made with brown rice," Buakhieo says.
In addition to the typical chicken, pork or beef — even relatively mainstream tofu and shrimp — Thai Bistro offers upscale scallops and calamari. Both shellfish are low in fat; scallops also are low in cholesterol.
Although the seafood is previously frozen, its quality is higher than in many restaurants, Buakhieo says. Large shrimp complement large "sea" scallops, not the smaller "bay" variety. And Thai Bistro cuts calamari steaks into meaty strips instead of purchasing often stringy rings of squid.
Also unusual are Thai Bistro's three preparations of duck, including roasted and stir-fried; its pepper-and-basil quail and barbecued lamb. At $27.45 to $21.45, these also are the most expensive dishes.
Most meals cost between $9.45 and $15.45 at dinner, with Pad Thai, "drunken" noodles and coconut-milk curries mainstays of the menu. Buakhieo says she is conscientious about featuring only coconut milk in Thai Bistro's curries while other restaurants add cheaper dairy milk. The distinction is important for both vegans and lactose-intolerant diners.
Buakhieo was diagnosed 20 years ago with allergies to eggs and wheat by a naturopathic physician. As she built a restaurant where she can cook — and eat — patrons voiced appreciation for her efforts, particularly on the gluten-free front.
"I do have a lot of regular customers who have come for years."
Locals voted Thai Bistro their favorite Thai restaurant last fall in the annual Mail Tribune Readers' Choice poll. Adding to the restaurant's accolades is an exemplary record with Jackson County health inspectors. Thai Bistro logged perfect scores on its three most recent inspections, commendable for any full-service restaurant but remarkable for Asian eateries, inspectors say. Since July 2007, its scores have never fallen below 90 out of 100 points.
"For me, every place is never clean enough," says Buakhieo, who operated a janitorial business for 14 years in the area before opening Thai Bistro. "It's just a matter of staying on top of it," she says, explaining that she's rarely away from the restaurant during business hours.
Buakhieo's husband, Billy, is her right-hand man. A native of Thailand, he does much of the cooking and has been part of Thai Bistro almost since its inception, when Buakhieo put her trust in a former Thai partner who left just a month after opening.
Basing their dishes on the original chef's recipes, the Buakhieos offer an authentically Thai "extra-hot" option. But most diners wouldn't be able to eat the food if it was as chili-laden as the cooks could make it, Sandy Buakhieo says.
"A lot of people don't want any spice at all."
Even stripped of characteristic heat, Thai food remains healthful, she says, with a lot of fresh vegetables, quickly cooked to preserve nutrients and flavors, and numerous anti-oxidant ingredients, such as garlic, ginger and exotic herbs. These indispensable elements, the Buakhieos say, give their fare that "special zing."