Dining at Bangkok Thai Express is like having dinner with family, except that your relatives were probably not born in Laos and raised in northeast Thailand like owners Ben and Maly Ouneklap.
Arriving in the United States as Laotian refugees, they met through mutual friends when both were in high school. Maly went on to study business at San Francisco State and Ben became a cook at a Thai restaurant in Berkeley. Six years after being introduced, they got married.
Their first venture, a tiny location in San Rafael, opened in September of 1990. People liked the food so much they stood in line outside for a bite.
Afternoon walks between lunch and dinner took Maly past a fancy French restaurant on Fourth Street. “It was a dream” she remembers thinking, “to own such a place.”
Soon, she noticed the “for sale” sign, and kept watching as the price came down. A business agent, who had seen the long lines at their small place, suggested they consider moving to a larger restaurant, the one Maly had been dreaming about. And they did. Ben is the chef and Maly, who runs the business part, is the hostess.
Daughter Mora was only five months old when they started serving Thai food at the Marin Farmer’s Market sixteen years ago. Now at San Rafael High, Mora was by one of our Patch readers as a “Whiz Kid.” Though she knows all about the business and what gracious service means, at this point, Mora wants to be a pediatrician. She does her homework at the restaurant in between helping with customers, and still makes the honor roll. Their son Vee-Liam is twelve.
Ben, who Maly describes as “a gifted chef,” studied at the Culinary Academy in San Francisco. His experience in restaurant kitchens ranges from Italian to French to sushi to pastry. He brought in an artist from Thailand to paint dramatic wall murals of popular sites like Phuket Beach and ruins in Thailand.
In the front, near the windows, you will find white linen clothed tables and there are private wood booths in the back. A stunning large bench, hand crafted from one piece of wood, makes a comfortable waiting area which separates the two sections.
Bangkok Thai Express, which seats fifty, is a great venue for private parties like birthday and graduation events, even weddings.
Maly, who knows 80 percent of her customers by name, is outgoing and accommodating. “I just like to make people happy,” she said. She and Mora might offer to “baby sit” your children so you can have a quiet dinner.
Giving back to several charitable organizations including Nami, National Alliance on Mental Illness, San Rafael High School, the Kiddo Program in Mill Valley and the YMCA, they offer gift certificates for fundraising events.
Thai food is known to be healthy and non-fattening. The light and fresh recipes use many vegetables and herbs. Prices run about $30 for two. They deliver at dinner time, except on Thursdays when they are at the Farmer’s Market, and customers call in orders for pick up.
Many of the dishes are vegan, vegetarian, dairy free and gluten free, and all are made to order, with sauces done from scratch. Their famous “Railroad Noodles” are made with rice noodles. The name is a direct translation of a dish made in Maly’s home town.
“Each dish is our specialty,” Maly says proudly. Stop in and celebrate their 21 years in San Rafael. If you are wondering why the sign in front says “Bongkot” Thai Express, that is the correct spelling of Ben’s name.
One of the most popular dishes at the Marin Farmer’s Market and at the restaurant, is Mild Yellow Chicken Curry, our recipe of the week.
Mild Yellow Chicken Curry
Prep time: 20 Minutes
Cooking time: 4 to 5 minutes
(The following ingredients can be found at your local grocery store. If you’d like to try this dish before or after making it, come to Bangkok Thai Express Farmers’ Market Booth on Thursday evenings for a sample. Or, if you’d like to try making it without buying all of the ingredients, come by the restaurant and Ben will give you the curry paste, powder and fish sauce for your novice attempt at creating this dish!)
½ tablespoon red curry paste (includes kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass)
½ tablespoon yellow curry powder
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
8 ounces coconut milk
1 sliced chicken breast
1 sliced carrot, al dente
½ cup cubed Thai pumpkin, cooked al dente
½ cubed potato, cooked al dente
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 basil leaves (either Thai or Italian)
In 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, sauté curry paste, curry powder, sugar, fish sauce and coconut milk together until blended.
Chicken and Vegetables:
Sauté chicken breast with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to medium-well done.
Add sauce to chicken, add vegetables, and simmer all ingredients together for 3 to 5 minutes.
Top with chopped fresh basil and serve with jasmine rice or brown rice