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The greater Lansing area is quite diverse, so it’s no surprise you’ll find great authentic ethnic food throughout the region. What is surprising, however, is when those ethnic cultures combine to create something great.
At Taste of Thai, two cultures have joined forces in an unexpected way — making this restaurant a cult favorite for those who know about it, and a gem waiting to be discovered for those who don’t.
Although Taste of Thai has been open for 18 years, this family-owned restaurant has a new look, a new feel and a new location, thanks to the second and third-generation owners.
We have renovated and done everything to this building, from the wall paper to making the tables,” said Bea Middleton, third-generation owner of Taste of Thai. According to Bea Middleton, Taste of Thai’s old location, which was next to the Quality Dairy on Grand River Avenue, was not only quite small, seating only 28 people, it was not functional for the demand of its customers.
“We’ve been here now for five months, and we love it. The old location was a really, really small space,” she explained.
The new space is impressive with its plentiful seating and decor, much of which was either brought over from Thailand or made by the owners. But what keeps customers coming back is the authentic, yet unique, menu, prepared by Taste of Thai’s head chef, Arturo Vanegas.
“He is the one who has worked here since he was 15 years old,” explained Boonyada Middleton, second-generation owner of Taste of Thai.
Now 33 years old, Mexican-American Arturo Vanegas, started out his career at the restaurant doing dishes. He slowly moved up the ranks, under the supervision and approval of the first-generation owners, and eventually jumped from doing dishes to prepping food and now is head chef.
“I love cooking,” said Vanegas, adding that Boonyada Middleton, “his boss,” wants him to pass down his knowledge to other chefs.
“It’s hard for me because they will never do it the way I like to do it,” he said.
Vanegas learned much of his cooking techniques and recipes from the multiple generations of owners that he has worked under over the years.
“Once a year I go back to Thailand and I cook on the streets,” Boonyada Middleton said, referring to street food vendors in Thailand.
“I cook for 12 hours a day for 15 days for free. I cook and I get the experience. I take those recipes and I teach him,” she said.
Both Boonyada and Bea Middleton stressed the importance of using fresh ingredients in their food. One way that they follow through on that is where they source their ingredients from.
“We work with a couple in Mason, they are also Thai. They have a garden and they grow Thai Chili peppers for us,” said Boonyada.
They also grow other herbs and spices for them, such as lemongrass. The freshness of the ingredients can actually lead to inconsistencies in the dishes, according to the Middleton’s.
“We always recommend that our guests get the least amount of spice if they aren’t sure. Our peppers are fresh, and it can depend week by week how spicy our sauces are. Some batches of peppers can be spicier than others. But it’s all organic and we don’t use any GMOs or anything like that,” said Bea Middleton.
While Vanegas hasn’t made the trip to Thailand himself yet, both Boonyada and Bea agree that he has mastered the Thai cuisine, and learns very fast when introduced to new dishes. Aside from being a great Thai cook, another asset Vanegas brings to his job is his Mexican heritage.
“We actually have elements from different cultures integrated in with our traditional Thai food now, and some of that comes from his Mexican heritage,” said Bea Middleton.
Taste of Thai’s original menu was quite small, offering Thai food staples like Drunken Noodles, Pad Thai and larb.
But as the years have progressed and new ownership has influenced the menu, these three have created a Thai fusion of sorts, integrating elements from Japanese food (sushi, fish, avocado, etc.) and Mexican food (spicy Mexican sauces, and a Mexican shrimp salad dish), while still upholding traditional, authentic Thai recipes and flavors.
“We are always watching the Food Network, social media and other things like that to get new ideas and keep things interesting for our customers,” said Bea Middleton.
“But we also still have lots of traditional Thai food as well. We put in a lot of little touches, but we don’t tell our customers. We know it’s good, and our customers like it. As long as they like it, that’s good enough for us.”
Taste of Thai Mon-Thurs, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Fri, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon. to 10 p.m. Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. 2838 E. Grand River Avenue Suite 2, East Lansing (517) 324-0225 www.tasteofthaiel.com