"I want what they're having," I said urgently to my companion as a pungent, delicious aroma wafted through the nearly empty dining room of our favorite Thai eatery. We were eating lunch late in the afternoon, and the staff of PeemKaew was sitting down to what is generally known in the restaurant business as "family meal."
While, for most of us, a meal with all of our "family" is relegated to holidays like Thanksgiving, restaurant crews eat together on a daily basis. Most restaurants put out a pre-shift or mid-shift spread for employees, a time when the team of often close-knit cooks and other staff can take a break, wolf down some homey grub and chat before the long hours of toil ahead of them.
It's always been my conviction that, especially in ethnic restaurants, the best food, the soulful, truly authentic dishes, never make it to the menu—they're had at this "family meal." My rubbernecking fascination with these meals had reached a breaking point; I ignored my innate shyness and boldly asked if I could be part of the PeemKaew family, if only for one afternoon.
What a payoff. Though they were not quite sure why I was so interested—and very nervous I would find things too spicy or a little too homey—owners Arbel Espiritu and wife Krystal invited me to their long, rough-hewn communal table at the back of their 10-month-old Pearl District restaurant for a staff meal.
So how was it different than what's on the menu? Head cook and Bangkok native Mek Rodjang explained that when he cooks family meal, especially when his parents stop in to eat with the crew, "I make it stronger, more intense, more everything," he says. "You know, lots of fish sauce and maybe pieces of meat that we wouldn't serve customers because it's not so lean."
Lunch started with just that sort of meat: fatty pieces of meltingly tender beef tossed with a heady dressing of lemongrass, lime juice, mint and a rich jolt of salty fish sauce. Most diners would probably send it back due to the appearance of fat, but it's delicious, and the cooks here know that. Next came a fluffy omelette with tomatoes and onion to accompany a caustically spicy catfish curry with green beans.
"I don't like things too spicy," half-Filipino, half-American waiter Robert Stewart says even as he applies a liberal amount of Sriracha chili sauce on his omelette, "like that curry, shwew, that's hot!" Laughter ensued as I watched in amazement at the staffers' ability to ingest such a fiery condiment in such quantities. It takes time to get used to get used to the way Thai families eat, I'm told.
The crew here, as with most restaurants, is a wildly diverse bunch. One of the cooks, Raul Rivera Villegas, hails from Mexico, and on special occasions he's in charge of staff meals.
"Sometimes we get sick of Thai food, so he'll make pork tacos with homemade salsa. It's so good!" Krystal says. She assures me I'll be invited back when he's cooking. Though she's from Thailand and Villegas' cultural roots are buried halfway around the world from her home country, they've got the love of food and chilies in common.
It might be a bit smug for me to brag about a meal served behind the scenes and only offered to staff, family and the occasional intrepid food writer. But, brave fork-bearers, take heart! Part of the function of staff meals is to allow the cooks a creative outlet, and often the staff meal one night will make its way to the specials board the next. Staff member Bangkok native and line cook Chat Chatnee's Bangkok noodle soup—a limey broth full of lemongrass, lime leaves, rice noodles and fried won tons—is so popular at "family supper," it's featured frequently as a regular restaurant special. Order it "extra spicy" and rest assured you're eating the same thing the PeemKaew family in the back is slurping up.
The jury is out as to whether this family will be getting together for their usual family meal on Thanksgiving; the owners aren't sure whether enough folks will buck against holiday tradition and go out for Thai food. If they don't, it's no loss—they sit down together every shift.
PeemKaew, 323 NW Park Ave., 621-3164. Open 11 am-3 pm and 5-9:30 pm Monday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday. $ Inexpensive.