A taste of Thailand in Cincinnati

Just steps from Mt. Lookout Square is one of Cincinnati’s most beloved Thai restaurants: Ruthai’s Thai Kitchen. Opened in 2001 by two Thailand natives, Ruthai’s serves authentic food in a small, cozy family atmosphere. And, for these small business owners, food and family have always been a big part of the story.


From Thailand to Cincinnati

Ruthai’s owner, Tim Tang, comes from a big family that has spread itself all around the globe. His father’s family (of twelve kids) is Chinese born and raised in Thailand, but many now live in the UK where they went to college. His mother was one of twelve kids as well, and was the only one who stayed in Thailand. The rest moved around the world, living in places like Australia and France.


When Tang was young, with some of his aunts and uncles and cousins now in the US, his maternal grandparents chose Lexington, Kentucky, to settle down. He was just a teenager when he moved from Thailand to live with them.


“Everyone else was kind of doing their own thing,” Tang says, “so I was the one to come here to go to school and take care of them, you know, [do things like] mow the lawn for my grandparents.”


Like many in his family, Tang moved to the US to attended college. He studied at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and then, unlike his brothers who made their way back to Thailand, he came to Cincinnati for work. Tang met his wife, Ruthai Sanphasiri, here in Cincinnati when they worked together in a restaurant downtown. Sanphasiri is a Thailand native as well. She moved to the US with her aunt who had a Thai restaurant and grocery store.


At their restaurant, while Tang works the front end, Sanphasiri is the lead cook. “She makes sure things run smoothly in the back,” he says.


During the lunch shift, Tang serves tables and sometimes steps in to prep sushi. That’s the life of a restaurant owner, he says, and it’s something he’s used to at this point. Opening a restaurant was not always his aim, but the restaurant industry is in Tang’s blood. In Thailand, his mother worked for Thai Airlines but she also had a restaurant on the side.


“I have always been around the restaurant business. When I was younger, I would help out to eat the free food,” he jokes. “[My family] would work in the restaurant almost every day. You’d start with washing dishes, work your way up to busboy, then wait tables. Maybe one day you’d cook.”


Almost twenty years ago, in Cincinnati, Tang was working in hotel management and part time in a restaurant. Though he and his wife had eaten at a few of the local restaurants, they didn’t know the Mt. Lookout area very well. But they were living in Hyde Park and they spotted the storefront as they drove by one day. It had been an Empress Chili and then a deli; the adjacent, connected storefront was a wine cellar. In 2001, Ruthai’s Thai Kitchen — and the Tang family — moved in.


A true Thai-flavored family business

Ruthai’s Thai Kitchen occupies the lower level of a two-story commercial building. Except for the sign, the exterior of the restaurant is somewhat nondescript but the interior is scattered with Thai and Buddhist décor. (Some have been blessed by a Buddhist monk.) Tucked up in one corner, behind the register, stands a statue of the Thai goddess of wealth. Related to the more popular Japanese lucky cat or “money cat,” the goddess is said to bring wealth and prosperity. She waves her right hand to bring in the customers.


The lunch crowd at Ruthai’s is mostly people who live or work in Mt. Lookout Square. The evening crowd has a lot of neighbors, especially the many young professionals who are moving into the Mt. Lookout/Hyde Park area. Tang has also noticed more and more Asian Americans and Asian students from UC or Xavier stopping in to dine, which is a good sign.


“If you can attract more Asians, you must be doing something right,” he says. “They know how it’s supposed to taste.”


The Mt. Lookout roll is a popular menu item. The menu at Ruthai’s is what customers would expect at a Thai restaurant in the US. Tang’s favorite dish is the Spicy Thai Curry, but the R & T (meat and vegetables with a curry peanut sauce) or Pad Thai are probably the most popular menu items. (The dishes have simple, descriptive, customer-friendly names.) Customers also come in for sushi, choosing from both traditional offerings and specialty items like the UK Roll or the Mt. Lookout Roll, named in homage to Tang family history.


Tang says the food is authentic Thai — at least it’s as authentic as is possible in the States. Here, Thai chefs are limited to whatever available — and affordable — spices and produce they can buy. For example, Thai recipes in the US may be served with broccoli whereas, in Thailand, there would be more vegetables like collard greens. Also, Tang says, some dishes in Thailand would have a little different flavor and less variable spice levels. (For example, one would not walk into a restaurant in Thailand and order “a 4 out of 10.”). Curry always seems very spicy in Thailand, he says. And Pad Thai is cooked with less flavor in Thailand because everyone adds their own seasoning at the table.


In addition to standard tables and seating at the sushi bar, one wall of the restaurant is lined with pillows on the floor. Tang says that not every Thai home has this traditional floor seating. He explains how it harkens to an informal Thai tradition of gathering with family or friends after meals, particularly when the group is too large to sit together at the table.


“Sometimes we like to sit on the ground, with a mat and some cushions, to get everyone together because we have such a big crowd, such a big family,” he says. “With all the relatives, it’s fun to sit on the floor.”


Today, Ruthai’s has irregular hours, in response to fluctuations in business. It makes no sense, Tang says, to be open when no one is coming in to eat. Now, during those afternoon hours between the lunch and dinner shifts, Tang has the freedom to pick up his two young kids from school and spend time with them before heading back to work.


Except for their own children, Tang and Sanphasiri’s families are still spread far and wide across the world. But Ruthai’s Thai Kitchen has formed a family of it’s own over its 17 years in business. Tang is now watching his first regular customers leave town for college or new careers and his children are growing up alongside current regulars, just like he and his wife both did when they were kids.


Plan your visit

Ruthai’s Thai Kitchen is located at 3162 Linwood Avenue in Mt. Lookout. It is closed on Monday and open irregular hours throughout the week (they are posted here). Alcohol is BYOB with no corking fee. There is metered street parking on Linwood Avenue. Go Metro with routes 24 and 25x.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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