Around Town: The Fresh Take on Thai Food by the River in Blawnox
Rick Sebak recounts his first visit to what's become one of his favorite restaurants.
I was lucky. On April 5, 2018, a Facebook friend, Kevan Yenerall, who teaches political science at Clarion University, sent me a note on Messenger alerting me that his wife had opened a new Thai restaurant in Blawnox. I didn’t have dinner plans that night, so I decided to check it out, and I was immediately impressed at the freshness and the quality of all the food I tried. The tom yum soup was especially impressive, perfectly spicy and bright, with shrimp. And I was doubly surprised to find out it was the very first day that Maenam Thai was open!
That evening I learned that Maenam Thai means “River Thai” and that the nearby Allegheny inspired the name.
Kevan’s wife, known as Nee — her full name is Supannee Khansuwan — grew up in the tiny village of Ban Cho Ko, located in the province of Roi-Et in rural northeast Thailand. She and Kevan met, thanks to the amazing matchmaking skills of her Aunt Sudee, who was working at an Asian restaurant called Penn Dragon in Clarion where Kevan was a regular customer. There were letters, photos exchanged, and a visit in 2004. The next year they were engaged, and Nee came to America in 2006 to marry the young professor. Kevan says a lot of permanent-resident paperwork, procedures and interviews followed; immigration and romance aren’t always easy.
Although Nee had an uncle who ran a small informal restaurant at his shrimp farm in her hometown, she didn’t have a lot of experience as a cook or restaurateur when she got to America. She learned the business fast, first at the Penn Dragon in Clarion, then at Bangkok Balcony in Squirrel Hill, followed in 2010 as lead cook at the Smiling Banana Leaf in Highland Park. Her culinary skills led to other leadership positions at Thai Me Up on the South Side and at Thai Cottage in Regent Square starting in the fall of 2012. But Kevan says her wish was to have her own place. “She talked about it for years.”
In 2015, Nee became an American citizen at the U.S. District Courthouse on Grant Street. Downtown, and still cooking, she continued to plan for her own small restaurant.
At first, among its many charms was its tiny size. Originally there were just three tables, seating maybe 10 people. Call it intimate. Eventually a sidewalk table was added, but then during the pandemic the tables were put away and the business became take-out. Now Old Thunder Brewing has opened just two doors away on Freeport Road, and the brewers there let you bring in food from Maenam Thai, even when there’s a food truck parked out front.
But it’s Nee’s fresh take on the food of her homeland that still delights me. Take-out still rules, but I often splurge and get things for tomorrow as well as tonight. There is an excellent green papaya salad (Som Tum) on the menu now, and grilled marinated pork on skewers (served with sticky rice and spicy lime sauce) but Nee admits she may be most proud of her tom yum soup. “I love to make it because I love to eat it,” she says. And there are world class crab rangoons as well, superb crab fried rice, exotic khao soi and avocado fresh rolls with peanut sauce.
I was there on Day One and I hope she cooks forever.
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