As patrons anticipate their meals, Bangkok's Atchara serves a feast for the senses.
The restaurant's dining room looks more like a living room furnished with bright, embroidered curtains and leopard-print upholstery. Shiny brass bowls, burnished wooden Buddhas, paper umbrellas, bamboo and wicker echo the owner's Thai identity. Aromas of pungent spices mingling with fresh flowers confirm the cuisine's authenticity and the cook's hospitality.
"It's a kind of smell sensation," says Bjorn Lundberg, who assists Bangkok's owner Atchara Khumsap.
"It's her style ... It's no one else's style," he says. "She and her mother developed something a long time ago."
Khumsap, 53, tells of learning to cook from her mother at a tender age in rural Thailand. She pounded onions and lemon grass to a paste when she was barely big enough to lift the mortar's heavy pestle. She made spring-roll wrappers and rice noodles by hand over an open fire. She operated a restaurant in Bangkok before leaving Thailand at age 35. After traveling in Europe, she settled in the Rogue Valley in 1995.
Khumsap's was by no means the area's first Thai restaurant, but it unintentionally introduced the kind of street food beloved in Asia and large American cities. A trailer parked off South Pacific Highway in Talent served Khumsap's clientele for six years before the vehicle moved to a lot on the town's East Main Street. Khumsap kept cooking in the temporary quarters while demolishing the property's existing house and building her restaurant's permanent home, opened in 2005, first under the name Bangkok's Benny.
"All the decorations, I did my own thing," says Khumsap.
Bangkok's is practically a one-woman show, with an extra pair of hands even harder to come by since Khumsap's son, Gang, joined the Marines in 2007 and niece, Mook, went off to college. Khumsap recently installed a pass-through counter to the kitchen, where diners can stand and deliver orders while she continues cook. Prep cooks who tried to land jobs with Khumsap couldn't adhere to her standards.
"They don't know how to work in the kitchen — even wash vegetables," she says.
Vegetables there are aplenty and include some rarely seen in the area's other Asian eateries. Brussels sprouts and kale complement more common broccoli and cauliflower. Also unusual, clover sprouts top most noodle dishes.
Khumsap says she purchases locally grown and organic greens, usually from farmers markets in spring, summer and fall and also from Ashland Food Co-op. She visits local farms and makes the rounds of Food 4 Less and Fred Meyer in Medford.
"I go everywhere."
More than half of the ingredients she uses are organic, says Khumsap. It's not just customers who prefer organic, but the cook, herself.
"I don't get used to eat chemicals," she says.
Fresh produce makes up most of Khumsap's diet. She eats just a little meat and almost exclusively Thai dishes because American food, she says, is too heavy.
"That's why I never get to see doctor," she says. "I eat a lot of fruit."
Although Khumsap's English conversation may omit a word here and there, there's nothing lacking in her food. She prepares every meal to order from raw meats and vegetables, unlike many restaurant cooks who have bulk batches of popular dishes ready to heat up or finish.
"I cook every day; I have to be fresh."
While some specialty Asian ingredients come from a Portland supplier, Khumsap's peanut sauce and curry pastes don't originate in jars. She formulates her own from herbs and spices and is particularly proud of her green curry, which usually stars Brussels sprouts but, in summer and fall, can contain all manner of in-season vegetables. Khumsap says she doesn't bother to change her menu with the seasons but just keeps adding produce, which apparently pleases customers.
Khumsap's from-scratch cooking means orders take a little longer than at other restaurants. A sign at the door informs patrons to plan on waiting at least 15 minutes for their food, but the lapse often is longer. About half of Khumsap's business is advance orders for takeout.
"They said it worth it," says Khumsap.
The flavor also is worth extra cost to Bangkok's regulars. Prices range from $10.95 for tofu or chicken fried rice to $16.95 for curries with shrimp. Beef and pork also are protein options for most dishes. The two appetizers — spring rolls and shrimp rolls — cost $7.95 apiece. Menu prices are the same at lunch and dinner.
The spiciness of most items doesn't begin to approach levels in Thailand, but Khumsap welcomes requests to turn up the heat, usually providing more spice on the side so diners can season to their preferences and because once it's been incorporated into a dish, she can't take it out.
Khumsap can, however, provide an extra dose of health and hint of Bangkok in every bite.