Humble Flair

The University District Remembers Thai Tom

Tom Suanpirintra was determined to keep the restaurant small and the energy ablaze. He passed away unexpectedly last week, but his business will carry on.

By Erin Wong May 24, 2021

Thai Tom and his signature flames at the counter on University Ave.

When Thai Tom, the University District’s dark-lit, bustling hole-in-the-wall, opened in 1994, customers came not only for the noodles steeped in tamarind or the open flames sizzling up to your eyebrows, but for the man behind the counter, Tom Suanpirintra. His clothes were always ironed, his long hair twisted back in a bun. While he juggled four woks at once, he would strike up conversations with those nearby, asking questions and listening peacefully.

On May 11, the day before his 55th birthday, Tom passed away suddenly, for reasons unrelated to Covid-19. He is survived by his wife, four younger sisters, and seven nieces and nephews. The man known as “Thai Tom” was one of the city’s first introductions to Thai dishes rocked with chilies and zest instead of tempered with sweetness. He had a sort of choreography to his cooking style—no measuring cups, just deft sprinkles of spice.     

His sister Tammy recalls the day they arrived in Los Angeles from Bangkok, after getting lost in the airport in Hawaii, when she was 10 and he 11. In high school, they moved to Seattle and started working at their mother’s restaurant, Thai Kitchen in Bellevue. During the lunch hour, her food erred a little sweeter than traditional Thai cuisine, to suit a 1980s American palate. At 3pm, however, their mother served up the real flavors she knew, mostly for her family but also a select number of loyal customers. It was this flavor profile, faithful to their years in Thailand, to which Tom would dedicate his menu. He sought out fresh, niche herbs and ramped up the spice.

When Thai Tom first opened, he worked nearly every day. He loved the diversity in the city proper and in the University District, where his unfussy aesthetic blended in and he could play the big brother to students and yuppies alike. At one point, he propped open a table outside to serve curry to the houseless along the University Ave.

“Everybody, no matter who you were, what your status was, you were always welcome,” Tammy recalls, “And he made them feel important.” Soon enough, the restaurant, which could seat no more than 20, would have a line trailing up the block that has carried on for decades. He was approached by his landlord and family about new locations or expanding the space, as neighboring retail folded. But Tom was insistent about keeping the operation small. The energy was better up close.

Tom’s humble persona contrasted with his flair for cooking. His family would be enlisted as taste-testers in his experimentations: salted fish and spaghetti with basil, foraged nettles in swimming rama, dandelions in gaeng khilek curry. Before she tried the curry, Tom’s sister Cindy had to ask: “Just promise me. You didn’t pick this out of your yard, right?” He didn’t. He did, however, convince his friends to remove their shoes on one memorable outing to forage nettles, just to up the stakes of the hunt.

Fans needn’t worry. Head chef George Kijsondhi has been perfecting Tom’s menu since he retired from cooking in 2004. The restaurant still serves the same mainstays, in the same porcelain banana leaf bowls, which arrive steaming and crackling, as though to answer Tom’s favorite question: “Hey, have you eaten yet?”

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