THINKING BACKWARDS: FAMILY, COMMUNITY, AND GREAT THAI FOOD IN GUELPH
BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR JONATHON BARRABALL
There is a little yellow house on York Road in Guelph, just before the intersection at Victoria. It wasn’t always yellow – it used to be red brick, home to a small Portuguese Piri Piri restaurant. After the ownership changed hands, a new sign went up on that freshly painted yellow house, which read ‘Na-Ha-Thai’s Kitchen,’ and it wasn’t long before everyone was telling me about ‘the new Thai place’ in Guelph. After my first visit I pledged to join those growing ranks of loyal Na-Ha-Thai patrons who declare this to be really good Thai food.
Naruemon, the owner of Na-Ha-Thai’s Kitchen, moved to Canada just over a decade ago from Thailand, where she worked as a researcher in sustainable agriculture at Chiang Mai University. Language barriers made it difficult for her to find similar work here, so she turned to her lifelong passion for food and cooking.
In 2013 she opened ‘Love at First Bite!’, a small food stall in the Guelph Farmer’s Market. And then, shortly after, another stall in the Aberfoyle Market. In 2015 she finally achieved her dream of opening a restaurant – albeit a cozy one, take-out and catering – with half a dozen seats and fewer parking spots.
Naruemon recently had TOQUE in to Na-Ha- Thai’s Kitchen for a lunch that quickly revealed what sets her restaurant apart. Everything she made for us was amazing. I could readily see why pad ga pow – a Thai street food staple featuring ground pork stir-fried with holy basil, and served with stingingly spicy fresh chili sauce, steamed rice, fresh vegetables, and a fried egg on top – is the most popular dish in Thailand. Khao soi, Naruemon’s personal favourite, was unbelievable – firm egg noodles in a delicately spicy coconut curry broth, with chicken, beef, shrimp, red onion, cilantro, and garnished with crispy fried egg noodles.
‘Na-Ha-Thai’s is authentic Thai food, made from scratch by Thai people,’ Naruemon told me. ‘We use organic ingredients everywhere that it’s possible. Our food is healthy, and we try our best to make everyone feel welcome, whether dairy-free, gluten-free or vegan.’
In order to be able to return to Thailand regularly, Naruemon closes the restaurant for a month every summer. ‘Those trips are for two reasons: family and research,’ she told me: ‘I like to keep up to date and bring back new ideas for the restaurant, but for me family is the most important thing.’ So that everybody who works at Na-Ha-Thai can rest and see their families, the restaurant is closed two days a week. ‘I like to think backwards,’ Naruemon told me. ‘I do what I love first and foremost – food, family, sharing – and business and profits come after.’
Owning a restaurant isn’t easy, especially when it serves a specific ethnic cuisine. Expectations and pre-conceived notions of Thai food all too often force these types of restaurants to serve a diluted, Westernized version of their homeland’s dishes. But Naruemon maintains that she wants to continue ‘to share real Thai food with people – especially dishes from Chiang Mai because it’s so beautiful and diverse.’
If you’ve tried Naruemon’s food you’ll understand why there’s a two and a half hour wait for take-out on Friday nights. ‘The community has been so supportive and people can be so patient,’ sighs. ‘Good food takes time, and there are just so many orders on a busy night!’
471 York Rd, Guelph