Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.[Photos: Kelsey Foster for Eater Dallas]
Shelly Nan's Bambu Asian Cuisine is tucked away in a hidden corner in a Richardson strip shopping center. Nan doesn't advertise, except for one ad in the local high school paper. And yet, she and her mother, Bounmee Nanthaphak, cook for a loyal and ever-growing cadre of Bambu customers. On the Bambu menu, diners will find the same spicy, fragrant Thai food Nan grew up eating. Turns out, that home-style cooking has, over the last year, put her in charge of one of the best-reviewed Thai restaurants in North Texas.
We stopped by Bambu to catch up with Nan, who tells us about her mother's dedication to using her own spices, herbs and peppers from her own garden in Bambu dishes, what makes Esan Thai food different and their adventurous, seafood and quality meat-packed menu that's hardly standard North Texas Thai fare.
Eater: This isn't your first restaurant?
Nan: "I helped my sister and brother in law in a previous restaurant. [Ed. note: Sushi Rock, now closed.] This is the first venture out to a Thai restaurant. Usually, it’s always been a Japanese restaurant.
It’s actually an extension of my mom’s kitchen, with a dining area. She loves to cook. That’s what a lot of the ingredients, a lot of the dishes out here, it’s her ingredients. It’s her recipe. I’m very proud of it. She’s very, an old way of cooking. This is her extended kitchen. We go over to her house, she would always make a lot of food, it would feed the whole army. A big group of people. you could be eating all day. That’s what she does. This is her extended kitchen.
A lot of the food here, she makes it on our special. We do have the traditional Thai menu. The special that we have, a lot of the dishes I remember when I was growing up that she cooked for us. She cooks very authentic way. A lot of herbs she grows in her garden. Her Thai chili pepper is a killer. It’s extremely hot. It’s got an extremely nice fragrance, it’s extremely hot. We use that in a lot of our dishes here. There’s her lime leaves, her herbs. And the chili pepper, she gets it right from the garden.
That’s her plants, her herbs. Some of her lime leaves are like thirty years old. It’s her babies. Every year she’ll be carting in her plants, five or six of them, putting them in her garage, in the summer and spring she’ll bring them back out again. Those are her babies. And her peppers, she’ll seed them, from a seeding. That’s how she grows her lime basil, spicy basil, lemongrass. A lot of that she has in her garden."
You'd say this food is made with a lot of love?
"I think so, I think she enjoys it. She’s one of those mothers that is a mother to everybody. Among our friends and family. Everybody calls her mom. Very nurturing."
Tell us how your menu is unique. Why's it look and feel and taste the way it does?
"Our menu, even though it’s a Thai restaurant, I am actually from the northeastern part of Thailand. The food there is very intense in spices and herbs. We don’t have much of the, we don’t do much of the coconut milk cooking except for the curries. Every dish that you see on our menu, it incorporated our style of cooking, Esan cooking. Esan is like the intense spice, not greasy, not too salty, not too sweet. That’s basically what Esan is about. We specialize in larb. It’s like, mince up like, chicken, beef or pork and toss with herbs and chili peppers and a little bit of toasted rice. It’s a salad style, with the lime leaves. We specialize in sticky rice. Our sticky rice are served in a small bamboo steamer that keeps the rice warm. In Esan, the main ingredients as a form of rice is sticky rice. We have Jasmine rice and sticky rice, but people tend to eat only the sticky rice. You eat it with your hand. You just make little bit sizes. It’s like bread, you scoop the sauce up with the rice."
Has the menu changed over the past year since you've opened?
"The menu is still basically the same, but we have the board. We have specials. We try to keep things seasonal. We love seafood, so when you come to seafood, you can see a lot of seafood on our menu. We normally serve oyster with horse tamarind. The combination of horse tamarind with the oyster, the oyster we serve here is a cold water oyster. The combination of the oyster and the horse tamarind, once eaten together, it’s like sugary sweet. It’s got a very nice flavor to it. We like seafood, so if there’s a seafood lover, there’s a lot of specialties we have. Mussels, whole fish. Our food is not too sweet. A lot of people enjoy that.
A lot of Thai restaurants, when you go there, they either have basically a fish or a catfish or a shrimp. That’s mainly the seafood they have. Here we have sea bass, salmon, we have a Prince Edward Island mussel, we got like a whole fish. We have, like, an oyster. And sometimes we do have razor clams and fresh clams. We do a lot of grilling in here. If you have never been in here, and you have our grilling, our grilled liver and our Esan sausage, you’d be surprised at how good it tastes."
What dish are you the most proud of?
"Our papaya salad is very tasty. A lot of times you go to a Thai restaurant, you have the version of it that’s very sweet, little sweet and sour with peanuts. That’s basically center Thai. Our version has preserved crab, a little bit of anchovy. It’s a very pungent flavor, an intense flavor. It’s really good. I’m pretty proud of our Crying Tiger that we serve here. It’s a beef that we grill and spice up with sauce on the side and sticky rice. We use really good, top quality meat. If you bite into our Crying Tiger, you know it’s different than other restaurants. Personally, I’m a steak lover and a seafood lover. That’s what we specialize in. I’m blessed that I have my mom and my sister here working in the kitchen. It’s a personal touch on every dish that comes out of our kitchen, it’s not made ahead of time. Everything is made here. Our homemade dumplings are a big seller here. It’s shrimp, water chestnut, you taste the home style cooking. That’s what we’re proud of. Any dish that comes out of here.
Our soup, a lot of customers ask me why do you serve the soup by the cup? Because we don’t pre-make. Except for lunch, we’ll have a soup of the day. Other than that, it’s so they can enjoy the freshness of the soup when the order is made. I hope people appreciate that."
Were you surprised by your four-star review in the Dallas Morning News? That's a hard get.
"I did not expect that at all. I was like, ever since helping my sister with her restaurant, I’m no tinto reading the GuideLive or anything like that. But my husband and I love to go out and eat. We’re food lovers. Not just Thai cuisine, any kind of cuisine. We love to eat. That’s what we like to do. He and I, we personally love to go to mom and pop restaurants. We enjoy the authenticity of the place, the character of the place. With this one here, I don’t live that far away from here. My mom doesn’t live that far away from here. I thought, why not open some place close to home? That’s what we did. We never expected such a nice feedback. For us, we don’t advertise. A lot of things we do here is word of mouth. It’s a slower process but our customers are very loyal. Only once we advertised, with the Pearce Scoop [at JJ Pearce High School]. I’m amazed people come in and say Shelly, Diane referred me to you, they come here all the time! Or there’s a customer who comes here all the time who brings in new people all the time. He brought in a group of ten this past Saturday, and Monday that group came back with another friend. That, to me, is an honor. That’s a great achievement for any restaurateur to see. I’m pretty up and personal with my customers."