Tiny Thai Place recently opened in the old Cowboys’ restaurant on U.S. Highway 278 west of Monticello.
“Thai Paul” Phurisri prepares everything from scratch as the “One Man Show” providing Southeast Arkansas with Thai food, so cook times often approach 30 minutes. Still people return to wait as he cooks to order for lunch and dinner, usually Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., then from 5-8 p.m. He also cooks Sunday for lunch.
The Thailand native can cook for 30-50 people an hour, depending on what’s ordered. Where he once changed the menu daily, now he features a regular menu with occasional additions.
C’mon in My Kitchen
In late February, the 43-year-old moved into a side of the now-Auction House at 1039 U.S. 278 W. Rows of chairs take up two-thirds of the front room. Three four-seat tables sit outside the short-order window.
Some of his customers help by taking orders and washing his skillets as he faces the heat from jumping flames. They say customer favorites include sweet ‘n’ sour chicken and the Sambai Chicken. A Thai-style burger features marinated hamburger steak dressed with teriyaki sauce; you can get a tofu burger, too.
He lists “expensive things” for ingredients and chooses organic when available, i.e. Phurisi normally purchases produce on Mondays from Whole Foods in Little Rock. He freshly cuts everything as he finds prepared vegetables tend to get soft. He uses olive oil and canola oil, a lot of garlic and thin soy sauce from an Asian store in Little Rock. He makes his own sweet’n’sour sauce, and uses tamarind for sour instead of vinegar.
He uses sea salt instead of regular salt when cooking, and avoids MSG and food seasonings. Twice a day he’ll go to Monticello’s Sav-a-Lot for fresh meat; he purchases fresh chicken from WalMart. He only boils dumplings for potstickers; he grills all chicken, steak and seafood.
“It takes a little time but it tastes better,” says Phurisri, who learned cooking in the French-Italian style from an Italian master chef in the early ’90s.
He’s recently started offering grilled fresh tuna and grilled salmon, which one customer recommended while fighting hard not to drool. People typically consider Thai to always be spicy, but Phurisri does not want to run off customers. He notes everything can be made mild instead of spicy, and vegetarian or vegan if preferred. But if you truly want it hot?
“Just tell me, ‘I want my eyeballs off!’” he says. “I make my sauce. Whatever you want. I just don’t want to kill you.”
For those whom he learns to trust as true spicy eaters, he occasionally uses fresh Thai chili peppers. Haley Phillips says she loves when Phurisri adds fresh Thai chilies to Tom Yum, a soup with Thai roots poured over rice.
The 20-year-old Rison native attending the University of Arkansas at Monticello claims the chilies are hot enough to take peoples’ breath away. She tells the story of two older men giving her grief for her face turning red as she ate … right up until they tried it. Phillips says it made them cry.
“’Oh my God! I can’t believe you’re eating that!’ they said. Paul said there’s just a couple of people who like it ‘Thai hot’ like I do,” she says. “I ate here once and said, ‘That’s not hot enough. Uh, treat me like an American. I want it Thai hot!’ Now he knows I’m not just being silly or bluffing. I like it hot. But he must be careful. He can’t make it so hot people can’t eat it.”
Phillips comes in twice a week, helping Phurisri by washing dishes and providing company during breaks. She made a color tri-fold brochure-type menu to replace the single sheets sitting on the table. She told her UAM classmates about the restaurant, and now they come to study while waiting for food.
Even Phurisri’s roommate helps. Sean Lawrenz moved to Monticello from Little Rock 10 years ago. The 38-year-old offers tea to a customer sitting by the short-order window. The customer seems amazed when Lawrenz notes the palm sugar sweetener only claims five carbs.
“(Tiny Thai Place is) something different, which is what Monticello needs,” Lawrenz says. “There’s country food everywhere. It just gives us more choices.”
Spice of Life
Phurisri originally grew up in a city as his father worked for the Army in the Thai embassy, but the family moved around a lot and he spent time living in the country. Although he learned to professionally cook, his first love was music. He said he started playing piano at the age of 2, and played sax and trumpet in his primary and secondary school bands. He spent time in London in his late teens as an understudy of DJ Quicksilver.
“Before I used to like rock music,” Phurisri says. “Then I heard House music, underground. I see deejay in England, the deejay is famous there. Everybody is dancing. I want to be like that guy. I grab my glass and introduce myself, ‘I want to be like you.’”
The deejay apprenticed Phurisri until leaving him at the turntable during a busy night; “Thai Paul” kept everyone dancing, only later realizing the deejay watched from a table with a drink. He returned home as the first deejay in Thailand’s electronic trance club scene, opening for Paul Van Dyk at the Spark Club in Bangkok in 1997. He said he averaged selling 20 homemade techno dance mixes a night at $10 a mix. He even made a song for a movie soundtrack.
He attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he earned a bachelor’s in media while radio deejaying at KTUH’s radio station and spinning as DJ Bond at the clubs. He thought he had quit cooking for good in 2004 as he chased his dream in the music industry.
“I swore to God I didn’t want to cook anymore,” Phurisri says while maneuvering three skillets over two burners. “Mom didn’t want me to move to Texas.”
Continuing his education and music, Phurisri earned a performance based scholarship to attend the University of Texas, where he earned a master’s degree in Radio, TV and Film. His music blossomed as he opened for Bob Schneider on New Year’s Eve 2008 while deejaying for 300-400 people every night at Antone’s Nightclub in Austin.
Phurisri released “PS Love” as Thai Paul http://www.myspace.com/thaipaul in 2009, which can still be purchased on iTunes and Amazon though he still has about 200 copies of the CD left. It includes the song “My Sammi Space which he wrote about his girlfriend and composed in 20 minutes.
Phurisi followed his love to Southeast Arkansas in 2010. A lack of music jobs led him to bartending at the Warren Country Club, but he gradually moved over to cook filet mignon, lamb chops, lobster, sea bass and grilled tuna. Though he says some people came to the Country Club just for his food, he walked out in a disagreement.
The 2011 Pink Tomato Festival provided a debut for his Tiny Thai Trailer. For two years, customers tried to catch him cooking either in Monticello or on Main Street in Warren. But his small trailer and insistence on cooking everything fresh led to lines.
“I don’t want people standing there waiting forever because my food cooks forever,” he says while handling skillets slowly sauteeing chicken, steak, shrimp or tofu. Instead of two burners in the trailer, he now uses 10 burners at times.
We devoured the vegetarian potstickers, made with carrots and cabbage and served with a red sauce. You must specifically request vegetarian if you want it, and it can be spicy enough without the sauce. My son ate the Aloha Fried Rice with tofu, made with cashews, raisins, pineapples carrots and bell peppers over a bed of stir-fried rice. I should have requested spicy for him but he said he it was good as is.
My wife tried the Pad Thai, an authentic stir-fry with thin noodles, green onions, bean sprouts and peanuts, topped with cilantro. The dish normally comes with eggs, but Phurisri left them out to make it a vegan meal; he also added Sambai sauce for additional spiciness. For someone used to metropolitan Thai food, my wife found it acceptable: “He has a good command of tofu. The spice level was great!”
Although Phurisri kidded me about a possible hangover, I enjoyed the Drunken Noodles with tofu, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and carrots in a hot amber-colored sauce. It brought a flush to my face and completely filled my stomach. When I returned the next day, I drank two black teas with palm sugar. It tasted sweet without being as syrupy as some folks make it.
The portion sizes for the freshly made food make the $8-plus a plate seem reasonable despite the styrofoam container. If customers don’t mind sitting around for their order or ordering then returning, the food makes the wait worthwhile.
Though he had fun with his music, now Thai Paul says he wants to provide the best for his son, soon-to-be 1-year-old Tanin “Sam” Phurisri. He notes he can do music anytime and anywhere, often playing music in the background as he cooks.
He will cater events if customers let him know at least a week ahead and provide a 30 percent deposit, which will be used to purchase food. He says he hopes by April to hire help if business continues to improve. He’s even considering regional deliveries, e.g taking 10-15 orders to Warren where customers can meet in one spot for a pick up. Though some customers tip, Phurisri claims a smile and returning customers provide reward enough.
Thai Paul says building owner Mike Nichols once paid $75-a-month just to eat his food at the Country Club; now he helps by providing Phurisri a place to cook. A lot of people have helped Thai Paul. In addition to those who’ve made menus and washed dishes, others have provided a home, clothes for him to wear and even shoes since his relationship soured.
“A lot of people help me. If they don’t help me, I’d be like a dog,” Phurisri says. “They help me because they trust me. They already get my life back, which means more than money. I have two hands, I can work for it.
“(I want to) make the best for my son and make the best food for people to be happy. If I die, everybody to still remember me. That’s all; I don’t need to be rich. Peace out!”
Appetizers: $1.50 – $7
Rating: 4 of 5 stars (subject to reevaluation once I suggest “I want my eyeballs off!”)
Restaurant review by Ron Sitton