Review: Thai Suan Thip
This Bellevue treasure offers authentic cuisine in a cozy setting served by chef/co-owner Joy Gehr.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
Thai Suan Thip is not just a restaurant. It’s also a chapter in the love story of Chicago native Jim Gehr and his wife, Salakjit (or “Joy”), who married on a riverbank outside the famous restaurant Suan Thip. “Suan” is Thai for “garden”; “Thip” loosely translates to “in the heavens.”
The two fell in love when Jim was working at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and Joy was a squadron leader in the Royal Thai Air Force. Many years passed, and they moved to Pittsburgh. In 2010, the couple opened their dream eatery, named for the place they were married, to showcase Thai culture and share their passion for the cuisine.
Thai Suan Thip is tucked away near downtown Bellevue, just a few blocks from Ohio River Boulevard. Upon entering the eatery, you leave the hubbub of everyday life and are absorbed by the charming wood-finished interior chock-full of Thai art, flowers and homey decorations. Completing the look is the dinnerware, some of which is formed in leaf or flower shapes.
“When you come through the door, I want you to feel that you entered another country,” says chef Joy.
At Thai Suan Thip, the ambiance is similar to that of a family’s home. Chef Joy and her son “Top” are the main cooks, while Jim is the primary server; their other son, “Tide,” resides in Thailand. There is currently one wok stove in the kitchen — though chef Joy plans to add another in the future —along with a deep fryer and six-burner stove; most food is prepared on the wok stove. Every offering is made from scratch, so as a result, your experience at Thai Suan Thip will be slow-paced — but it’s worth the wait.
Chef Joy has a charming personality and regularly talks with customers. As a child, she helped her mom in the kitchen and assisted her great-aunt, who was an elite cook for the Thai royal family and lived on the grounds of the royal palace. Chef Joy later attended a culinary school in Bangkok to further her knowledge of the craft.
The menu is extensive, but because the restaurant is relatively small, some menu items aren’t available nightly. Two star appetizers are the Thai dumplings (four for $7.50), packed with a dense pork filling and served with a side of dark soy-ginger sauce, and the unusually light samosas ($6.50), phyllo triangles made with curry powder and stuffed with a yummy sweet potato, pea and carrot purée. The Tom Kha and Tom Yum soups (both $4.95 per bowl) are fine but not extraordinary.
Try the traditional larb ($9.95), a refreshing mix of mesclun greens, cilantro, onion and tomatoes, topped with tender ground chicken (or ground pork, occasionally); its lime dressing achieves one of the hallmarks of Thai cuisine — striking a perfect balance between tart, sweet and spicy flavors.
The meal that blew me away was the chef’s special Thai duck curry ($15). This was an entrée unlike any I’ve had at a Thai restaurant, reminiscent of a sweet-and-sour dish. Slices of duck were fork-tender and plated with carrots, tomatoes, raisins, red and green peppers, pineapple, basil leaves, and the Asian fruit longan in a rich but not spicy red curry sauce.
If you are a curry fan, you will appreciate the restaurant’s assortment — including massaman, red, green, yellow, panang and pumpkin, all available with veggies or the protein of your choice. I enjoyed the massaman curry with chicken ($12.95); this coconut milk-rich dish features onions, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and peanuts, and would be especially warming on a chilly day.
Among the chef’s specials, I loved the spicy basil; I ordered it with beef ($15.45). The dish is comprised of thinly sliced and sautéed beef, snow peas, onions, celery, green and red bell peppers, and basil in a zesty chili sauce. This sauce also had a balance of tastes. The pad thai with shrimp ($16.45) was good but not amazing.
After visiting several times, I concluded that Thai Suan Thip is a place where you should ask for recommendations. In addition, consider giving the daily specials a try, as they reflect chef Joy’s inspiration.
For dessert, there’s Dave & Andy’s ice cream in flavors of mango, coconut and green tea ($4.95 for three scoops). Request that your ice cream is topped with Thai-style fried bananas, and pay $1 more. Sticky coconut rice with mango ($5.95) is available seasonally; during cooler months, chef Joy whips up sticky rice with Thai custard ($5.50).
You can taste the dried ginger in the ginger tea ($1.50 per glass), which is a nice accompaniment to dinner or dessert.
Thai Suan Thip seats 30 on the main level. In warm months, there are also a few chairs outside. When the temperature drops, the eatery closes the patio but reopens the downstairs dining area, which can accommodate 20-25 patrons. The restaurant is always busy on weekends, so be sure to make a reservation.
Consider dining here after a long workweek. Grab your favorite wine or bottled beer, relax and enjoy the calm pace — as well as the homemade food chef Joy prepares with love.
Joy and Jim Gehr
Chef/Co-Owner and Co-Owner, Thai Suan Thip
What were your previous careers?
Jim: I worked in foreign relations and was in Thailand for eight years, where I met Joy.
Joy: I was a [squadron leader] in the Royal Thai Air Force. I was eventually promoted to deputy chief of protocol for the intelligence department. I arranged all the VIP functions. This gave me the opportunity to taste a lot of food and talk to all sorts of chefs.
Why did you move to Pittsburgh?
Jim: In 1992, I came to Pittsburgh for a business trip and was so impressed. I fell in love with the city.
Why did you go into the restaurant business?
Joy: We are very proud of Thai culture and food. When we retired from our previous careers and moved here, we really [wanted] to share the culture and food with the people of Pittsburgh. One customer suggested that we add General Tso’s chicken because it’s so popular. This is not what we are trying to do; we are not trying to represent other Asian cuisines or Asian-American dishes just because they are popular. We are offering authentic Thai cuisine.
Would you classify the cuisine as spicy?
Joy: That is a common misconception about Thai food. Although we invite our customers to request a spice level, the majority of Thai food is not spicy at all. It really goes dish by dish. Some dishes are spicy; some are not. In fact, many Thai dishes are about the subtle balance of flavors, which would be overwhelmed by spiciness. Usually in Thailand, food is offered with chili paste or dried chili flakes, so you could add heat if you wish.
What sets your restaurant apart from the other Thai establishments in Pittsburgh?
Joy: [Laughs] Well, of course, we think ours is the best! No, seriously, we are very careful [and want] to be very authentic, regardless of cost. We don’t use MSG or Kikkoman soy sauce or jalapeños — none of which are Thai, although you see [those ingredients] in other Thai restaurants. We also don’t serve foods that are not Thai, such as crab Rangoon.
[Thai Suan Thip, 172 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue; 412/766-1899; BYOB; hours: 5-9pm Mon-Thu, 5-10pm Fri-Sat]