Market Spotlight: 'Walking on the wild side' with Thai Ni Yom
We had to wait until Alex Lapanunt finished serving the lunch line from his Thai Ni Yom food truck before he could answer a few questions about authentic flavors, hopes and dreams, and the value of keeping it spicy. Alex and his wife Nikki Mitphakdy started serving at the Market last year, and beginning in February they’ll add Grow Local Kitchen lunch service inside the Market House on Mondays.
What does “Thai Ni Yom” mean?
We considered many other names for our food truck before watching an old Thai movie one night that mentioned a post-World War II government campaign — called “Ni Yom Thai" — aimed at increasing pride in Thai culture.
It means great, popular and famous, and it especially applies to the recipes from our parents and the Thai royal cookbook. I think the 1960s-70s was the most beautiful time period for Thai food. Back then Thai people prepared their food from scratch, and every single household had its own secret recipes. If a secret got out and a family became famous, they maybe started a restaurant — many of which are still open. While growing up in Thailand I especially enjoyed visiting friends to try all their recipes.
We think this phrase is perfect for our concept of making Thai food inspired by authentic recipes.
Did you travel 9,000 miles from Bangkok to Nashville in hopes of becoming country music stars?
Of course! But instead of a guitar I perform with knives and a wok. The kitchen is my studio now – using food for my lyrics and tune.
When we first arrived in Nashville a decade ago we tried many Thai restaurants. I was very surprised that they made the food in such a different way. I believe that before you make food you first have to understand the root of the dish. I am lucky that I already have a lifetime of experience from my homeland, and I just want to keep my food traditional while offering another opportunity for Nashvillians to try authentic Thai food.
What’s your most popular dish? Is that also your favorite dish to prepare?
I would say it’s spicy basil, which is also one of my favorites. The sauce and chili garlic cover the meat like gravy and then you throw in some fresh basil. It’s packed with flavor and is basically Thailand’s national lunchtime dish. It’s straight to the point like an uppercut punch!
I like every dish that I prepare. I use local products [including some purchased from NFM vendors], and even though I use traditional methods, I still learn every time I cook. Although working inside a truck limits what we can do, I’m excited to think about expanding our menu in the future.
How does Thai food differ from other Asian cuisines?
I love all Asian food and many other cuisines. But every time I return home from traveling, my first meal must be Thai food to refresh my soul.
Thai food balances all seven flavors of sour, sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, creamy and astringent. And because Thais believe that “food is medicine,” you’ll find herbs in every dish and they’ll help keep your body in balance. Take tom yom koog [hot and sour soup with prawns], for example. The broth keeps your stomach warm with galangal, while lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and shallots help your digestive and respiratory systems and the lime juice packs vitamin C. This time of year it can help keep colds and flus away.
What’s your truck’s top speed?
Maybe 70 mph … but I only drive 40-55 mph tops because it’s very heavy.
Once you stop, how long does it take to get ready to serve?
I’ll already have prepared almost everything fresh in the morning, so when I get to the Market it takes only around 15-20 minutes to set up.
What’s your favorite Nashville food?
We love fried chicken. Before opening the food truck we liked to eat hot chicken every week (and sometimes twice a week). I also can't live without a good medium-rare steak.
What happens if you add too much spice and a customer can’t handle it?
I’d make a new order for a new customer … unless they’re a regular, in which case I’ll tell them to try walking on the wild side sometimes — it makes you stronger.
Could you use this truck on the streets of Bangkok?
Oh no — it’s too big to park on the street. We have food trucks in Thailand, but they’re not as big as ours.
Outside of the Market, what’s your favorite Nashville spot to take visiting friends and family?
In our free time we like to visit the Tennessee State Museum and area state parks, and of course that’s where I like to show my family our state’s history and take them hiking. The Frist Museum is another favorite. Nature is life, and life can’t live without art.
Wine from Natchez Hills or a beer from The Picnic Tap?
It depends on the food and mood. I love beer and wine. Thai food goes well with both beer and wine, but sometimes I choose drinks according to the dish I will eat and sometimes according to the music I’m listening to.
What do you most enjoy about selling food at the Market?
The people: venders, customers, and the office staff who welcomed us from the beginning. Can you believe that Nikki and I lived here for 10 years before setting foot in the market? When we finally checked it out, we looked at each other with exactly the same thought: this is the place for our food truck.
Now every time we close up the truck at the Market, we still hang around to enjoy all the people and movement. It’s beautiful.