Icons: The secrets to Bangkok Grocery & Restaurant's staying power

Bethia Woolf
Papaya salad

When I asked co-owners Jintana and Anucha Saelim if they thought they'd be running Bangkok Restaurant 32 years after it debuted, Jintana's response was emphatic: “Of course! If there is no confidence in your food, then how can you stay afloat?”

It's a fair point, but a long list of recent restaurant closures proves that good food alone does not make for an institution. Bangkok certainly doesn't pin its reputation to the restaurant's interior, which, save for some Thai art and a framed picture of Thai royalty, is stereotypically strip mall—simple and a bit dated. Then there's the restaurant's location: Situated one gas station and one Burger King away from the unlovely intersection of Winchester Pike and Refugee Road on the southeast side, it couldn't be much more distant from any of the traditional foodie centers of the city—the Short North, Bethel Road or burgeoning Morse Road. Despite these challenges, Bangkok has not merely endured but thrived for more than three decades.

In the dining room, servers swerve, dart and hustle with an impressive calmness of demeanor. They sunnily acknowledge regulars while on the dash between customer and kitchen. Meals are dispatched, tables cleared and requests fulfilled, all with the uncomplicated sense that this is what they do and this is how they do it—quickly, cheerfully and without fuss. It's a front-of-house that should be the envy of many a restaurateur.

A consistent staff is one key. Server Dee Dee Phim has worked at Bangkok for 18 years, and while pointing toward another server she says, “Well, she's been here for 17.” The women have had time to hone their craft. Upon suggesting that such longevity is very unusual in the restaurant business, Phim cuts straight to the heart of it: “They've been very, very good to me here,” she says.

When exploring Thai food, you'll quickly come across a well-worn mantra: The key to the cuisine is balancing the flavors of sweet, salty, sour and spicy (some add bitter into the mix). The emphasis on balance is essential. When one flavor is off, the appeal of the dish collapses. Bangkok clearly understands this principle and demonstrates a mastery of it effortlessly.

This is never truer than in their perfectly executed pad thai. Often dismissed as an Americanized dish—it was actually created at the request of Thailand's fascist prime minister Plaek Pibulsonggram—when done properly it reflects the precept of balance in Thai cuisine. At Bangkok, perfectly chewy and expertly wok-seared rice noodles convey citrus, fish sauce, spicy heat and a faint hint of caramelized sugar. Ground peanuts and green onions provide a flavorful garnish, and there's not a bad choice from among the accompanying meats on offer. It's no surprise that pad thai is among Bangkok's most popular dishes, and it deserves to be.

Another best-seller, according to Jintana, is tom yum, or hot and sour soup done Thai-style. Offered with a variety of proteins (tom yum goong with shrimp is the most popular), the soup balances its sinus-clearing heat with an acidic tang and an array of fragrant herbs and spices that unfold across the palate long after consumption. Plump shrimp mingle in the large metal serving bowl with sizable pieces of lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves.

Also popular is the restaurant's nam tok, or beef salad. Served cold, tender and flavorful grilled beef and lettuce marinate on the plate in a mix of pungent fish sauce and tart lime juice. Chiles, toasted rice and mint serve as garnishes. While most Thai dishes are traditionally consumed with a fork and spoon (save the chopsticks for noodle dishes), nam tok is commonly eaten by ordering a side of sticky rice and using pinches of it to pick up morsels of meat from the plate. The rice is also ideal for sopping up the delicious juices pooling beneath them.

Loyalty is a word that comes up often when discussing Bangkok. Regulars are legion and eager to express a sense of ownership in “their” restaurant to a random food writer wandering the dining room. In my experience, there are two kinds of people in Columbus: those who have never heard of Bangkok and those who swear by it as the only Thai restaurant in town. (It's not, although the options are slim.) Jintana says some of their regulars come from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and West Virginia.

Jackie Jones epitomizes the restaurant's loyalists. She rifled through the dates of family milestones to deduce that she's been a customer for 13 years and sheepishly admitted to eating there an average of three times per week. The staff, she says, feel like family. “I lay at home and crave this,” she says, poking at her pad krapowgai (basil chicken). An eavesdropping Phim grinned.

These dining room interactions feel more like those in a small-town diner, one where you'd never encounter anything like the dishes on Bangkok's menu. The vibe is deeply and nostalgically American, or at least it resonates with nostalgia as recalled through rose-tinted lenses. Perhaps the combination of unadulterated Thai cuisine and environs, served with a genuine concern for the happiness of others, can continue to sustain this most improbable of restaurant icons. It's a balancing act equal to that of the cuisine itself.

Bangkok Grocery & Restaurant

3277 Refugee Rd., East Side, 614-231-8787,