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Nearly every Saturday for what seems like a hundred years, my family ate lunch at a place called Thai Kitchen on Grand River, in a strip mall, next to a martial arts studio. It was not the fanciest Thai food I’ve eaten, and the “room,” if one can call it that, was dominated by nondescript tables and chairs, and framed travel posters. Walking in, one was greeted by a slender and graceful Buddha statue, a small counter with a tree full of donations for the Thai Buddhist monastery in Perry, a gumball machine and a low table covered with magazines from 1998.
It was a family operation, with a small kitchen. The wait staff was all female, all dressed in traditional Thai gowns. “The mom,” as we always called her, was a whirlwind of activity, dashing back into the kitchen to check on the curry, carrying white plastic takeout bags to the counter, and always, always stopping by our table to say hello. As is the case at a place “where everybody knows your name” (or at least your regular order) the staff came to know that whatever my husband ordered should be as hot as they could make it, and that I liked my Tom Yun Gai with chicken but my Pad Thai with tofu. My son graduated over the years from little bits of chicken satay and a bowl of rice to competing with his father to see who could eat the hottest curry fried rice.
It was part of our routine, they were part of our life, and then they vanished. One night I sent my husband to pick up takeout, and he called to say the doors were locked. Driving by in daylight we noticed that the place was empty, and eventually the familiar “Thai Kitchen” sign was replaced by a sign in Chinese. There are lots of other places around here to eat Thai food, and we were unlikely to die from lack of a good bowl of Drunken Noodles, but we were sad. It was totally irrational, but having them leave without saying goodbye hurt my feelings. I wondered about them – had the rent gone up too high, had they decided to retire, were they living some new life in which they fed my satay to undeserving diners in Peoria or Dubuque.
One day, my husband came home from his office in Okemos and mentioned in an irritatingly casual way that our old friends had opened again on Okemos Road, between Grand River and Hamilton. They were, in fact, in the building that had been The Sip ‘N Snack during my school days in Okemos (although we often referred to it as “The Squat and Gobble”). He ate there, reported that the food was exactly the same, and that The Mom had inquired after me and said how much she’d missed seeing us. Next I received a message from a friend telling me that Thai Kitchen was now New Thai Kitchen, and the food was the same. I had to go, she insisted, and I had to let people know they were back in business.
I considered these occurrences to be divine providence, omens, and portents. It was necessary, just this once, to leave East Lansing and strike out for Okemos even though my charter is to write about East Lansing. I justified it to myself like this: Thai Kitchen was in East Lansing, if we missed having it around, other people might also miss it, and it is actually sort of a public service to let the world know that Okemos now has a little slice of East Lansing nestled in its heart.
Last Saturday, we had lunch at New Thai Kitchen. It looks different – there is more actual “décor,” and there is greenery, although I was pleased to see my favorite statue near the rear entrance. There were no young women in bright silk; all of the wait staff was male, and wearing black shirts and pants. The food, however, was unchanged. Best of all, The Mom came out to say hello to me. I started to ask questions like “why did you close, how have you been, why did you come here, what happened?!” But she’s a reserved woman, and it felt intrusive to cross-examine her when mostly, really, I was happy to see her and equally happy that she had not changed the recipes.
The young man who waited on us doesn’t know yet about the chicken in the soup but no meat in the noodles thing, but he’ll learn.
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