Yee Anothai is bringing fragrant spices and flavors from the streets of Thailand to downtown Charleston.
She casually opened the doors for Chow Thai, a new restaurant on Shrewsbury Street, last week, and — well before a formal grand opening — it is already attracting crowds of curious locals.
“It’s hard to find good Thai food around this area, so I pretty much cook at home,” Anothai said. “I just want to present Thai food to Charleston.”
Though the food is mostly traditional, Anothai has taken a more “relaxed” approach to the menu.
“In Thailand, we have a lot of street vendors, so street food is very popular,” she said. “The taste, I try to make it authentic, but the look — I try to make it look more like street food.”
Whether they choose to take-out or dine-in, customers begin by ordering at the counter, then take a seat — or simply wait — in the small, 12-person dining room as Anothai freshly prepares her recipes.
The decor of the restaurant is simple but modern. Its painted-white cinder block walls are complemented by wooden furniture and metallic trimmings.
But the recipes aren’t quite as simple as the decor.
Though she’s able to find many of the basic fixings for her dishes here in the U.S., Anothai has acquired authentic ingredients — like spices — directly from her home in Thailand by having family in her native land ship them to her here.
“I know it costs more money, but I just want to keep it as traditional as I could,” she said.
Anothai is from Khon Kaen, a large city in northeast Thailand, where her family owned a bread company while she was growing up.
She learned the ins and outs of owning a business at an early age.
“In Asia, when your family has a business like that, you grow up with it. You have to help family,” Anothai said. “I helped them when I was like seven or eight, whatever I can help — put stuff in the bag, pack them up, answering phones.”
Her responsibilities to help the family carried over into her household, where she helped her grandmother cook for all of her cousins.
“My cousins — they liked it, so it made me feel like I want to cook for them and I want to try something new,” she said. “[I was] 11 years old and cooked for everyone younger, and they liked it. That made me think ‘Oh, I can cook.’”
She didn’t dream of owning a restaurant at 11 years of age, but she did learn how to create traditional Thai dishes and experiment with her own recipes.
In college, Anothai studied hotel and tourism management, where her culinary dreams developed.
“When I studied and [went] to college, I just wanted to travel around the world,” she said. “I like to see different places and enjoy learning a new culture.”
An internship at the Holiday Inn (now the Four Points by Sheraton) led her to Charleston in 2008, and she stayed after finishing the internship and landing a job at the hotel. Eventually, Anothai went on to work at Embassy Suites.
She likes West Virginia for its mountains and lush greenery. Now, nearly nine years later in the Mountain state, she’s making her restaurant dreams come true.
Anothai began the process of opening the restaurant four years ago, but says financial problems got in the way.
Today, she’s still working on the details — like ordering enough food and hiring staff.
She didn’t anticipate a big crowd on the first day the restaurant was open, but she was forced to close for two days because she ran out of food. Now, she’s constantly ordering ingredients to keep up with the demand.
“This was my first time to open a restaurant and it’s a big thing for me,” Anothai said. “I’m excited but I’m nervous.”
Anothai plans to officially open on July 27. For now, Chow Thai is serving a limited menu each day.
Updated menus can be found on Chow Thai’s Facebook page. The restaurant is located at 426 Shrewsbury Street.