CEDAR RAPIDS — Natta Tantipanyathep Thomsen really loves Thai street food. She grew up on it — her mother, Kanjan Tessanan, who still lives in Bangkok, owned a street food stand. She passed her skills and her pride in her cooking down to Natta.
“She enjoyed it a lot. She used to say, ‘My rice is beautiful. Only good-looking people can have my rice,’” Natta said with a laugh.
Beautiful rice, she added, is all about getting the right water-to-rice ratio, so it cooks correctly.
“When she opened the rice, it was so beautiful on top, every grain,” Natta said. “My mom gave me a lot. Since I was about 7, I helped her in the kitchen.”
So it makes sense that some of her favorite Thai street food dishes appear on the menu at NaRa Thai Cuisine, the restaurant Natta and her husband Ray Thomsen opened at the end of August.
Street noodles have their own section on the menu, with dishes like khao soi, Northern Thailand yellow curry-style ramen noodles with red onions, green mustard pickles, fried garlic and onions topped with crispy noodles.
“I love noodles. I can live and die on noodles,” Natta said. “Growing up in Bangkok, you never felt hungry. All day and all night long, the food on the street is so good.”
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The menu also includes Thai dishes familiar to many American diners, like pad Thai, with rice noodles, egg, green onion, bean sprouts and ground peanuts, along with specialties Natta hopes to introduce to more customers, like basil duck, with crispy duck, bell peppers and onion sauteed in spicy basil garlic sauce with crispy spinach.
Many dishes can be ordered with a choice of protein, including chicken, beef, pork, seafood, duck and vegetarian options such as tofu and mock duck.
Not all the dishes are spicy, but the menu labels those that are with tiny chili peppers. Customers can chose a spice level between 1 and 10, which comes with a caveat, Ray said, that many diners with Midwestern palates, even if they enjoy spicy food, may want to stick to the lower end of the scale. He described a dish that was spicy enough to make both staff in the kitchen and people who smelled it going by start coughing.
“Anything above three is too intense for some people,” he said. “But for some, they love it.”
Natta is one of them — she makes her own dried chili mixes.
“I love to fee this is real,” she said. “ I used to cook at a level five, but I just felt it was ok, so I started adding more.”
The restaurant is tucked into a storefront on Blairs Ferry Road behind Lindale Mall that used to house a tattoo parlor. Now, one wall is covered with a photograph of Wat Arun, the “Temple of Dawn,” a famous landmark in Bangkok.
Ray is a subcontracts program manager at Rockwell Collins. Though Natta is the main force behind the eatery, he helps behind the scenes and might be seen waiting tables during busy shifts. “I enjoy the days where you can take really good care of everybody and you can talk to people,” he said.
The couple live in rural Linn County and plan to retire to Thailand eventually. But for now the restaurant is the focus. Natta had previously worked in other Thai restaurants, and she said having her own eatery has been a longtime dream.
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“I love cooking. I want to make food for people,” she said. “When we have parties, I’m the one who cooks. I can stand six, seven hours to cook, to feed people. I feel addicted to cooking.”
l Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
l What: NaRa Thai Cuisine
l Where: 1725 Blairs Ferry Road, Suite 102, Marion
l Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday. Noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Hours subject to change.
l Details: (319) 200-4004, facebook.com/NaraThaiFood