When the season of sniffles comes around, Ali's Thai Kitchen has a prescription for easing symptoms and staying well.
Fresh ginger and garlic copiously used in traditional Thai cuisine — along with more exotic lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime — are folk remedies upheld by modern-day studies as healthful. These herbs and spices infuse dish after dish at the Medford restaurant.
"This season, the soup is the No. 1 that we sold," says Pornjit Pronobis, 52, who manages her mother's restaurant.
Eleeya Smith, also known as Ali, opened her eatery in 1990, when Thai food was relatively unknown in the Rogue Valley. The restaurant quickly gained a following and was singled out for several years running as locals' favorite Asian establishment in an annual poll of Mail Tribune readers. Ali's popularity likely is the product of customers' food being prepared the same way restaurant staff would want to eat it, says Pronobis.
"They like spicy," she says. "A lot of people order even more spicy."
Smith hails from Thailand's metropolis of Bangkok, which is a "real mix," says Pronobis, of the country's distinct culinary regions with other influences. Learning to cook from her family in Thailand, Smith came to the United States at the behest of a sister who lived in California. She eventually joined the kitchen staff of Pongsri's in Grants Pass but wanted a restaurant of her own.
"We try to make very much like Thailand," says Pronobis. "We don't do a tiny bit of ingredients."
The spicy tom yum and tom kah soups that are so popular in winter are awash in chunks of galangal — similar to ginger — slivers of lemon grass and whole kaffir lime leaves under a sheen of chili oil. Whether prepared vegetarian or with chicken, the latter is enriched with a generous amount of coconut milk, says Pronobis.
"They say coconut is good for your body."
Although Ali's menu lists more than 90 items, most represent variations on a much smaller number of dishes, including the typical pad thai, curries, stir-fries and rice. Less mainstream is Ali's inclusion of cucumber and winter squash in its stir-fried vegetables.
"We use squash a lot because squash good for your skin," says Pronobis.
Also unusual is the recent addition of black and brown rice to the steamed white rice included with most orders. Ali's made the change to offer something a little better, says Pronobis.
For Ali's most health-conscious diners, there are 10 salads, most of which combine greens, other fresh vegetables and meat, seafood or tofu with fresh herbs and lime juice.
"It's not like a regular salad," says Pronobis.
Ali's most popular dish remains Thailand's quintessential noodles accented with peanut, and the most requested protein is chicken, says Pronobis. But tofu and curries are gaining ground at Ali's, she says. Curries, she adds, are the only dishes that involve advance preparation, rather than fresh to order.
"It never stay for a week anyhow," she says of the state health department's time line for restaurants to sell cooked foods.
Such conscientious food handling and cleanliness have landed Ali's consistently among the highest-scoring food-service operations in Jackson County. It logged a perfect 100 during its June semiannual inspection and also had a spotless track record in 2011. In the past six years, it's never fallen below 94 points, according to county records.
"My mom (is) that way," says Pronobis of the force behind Ali's noteworthy compliance. "Some restaurants, they don't clean when they close."
Every Sunday night, Ali's employees overhaul the restaurant for the next week, says Pronobis. At age 72, Smith still cooks with help from two other family members.
"She's still here every day," says Pronobis. "She (is in) very good health; she active all the time."
Smith's daughter cites the quality of the family's diet and its preference for healthful foods over pills.
"We (do) not take the medicine," she says. "Whatever we have in the kitchen, we use that.
"We don't eat out much."
Those who eat there say Ali's maintains the level of quality that set it apart in the beginning.
"Every time I've been here, I've loved it," says Medford resident Bill Shrader, a customer for the past decade.
An appetizer of stuffed and deep-fried chicken wings initially lured Shrader and wife Judy to Ali's. But the couple also approve of lighter dishes, such as pad thai, and the combination of whole-grain and white rice.
"I think the food is generally healthy," he says.
"And," she says, "it doesn't sit heavy on your stomach."