“I give Thai food five stars out of five.” So ends a child’s handwritten review on the bulletin board inside the Damariscotta restaurant Best Thai.
Thanyalak Rojpanichkul, manager and daughter of owner Chanint Hanjitsuwan, has a theory about the popularity of her native cuisine. She believes the way the four key flavors — salty, sweet, sour, and savory — mix in the dishes and hit the taste receptors on the tongue in unison may explain the popularity of Thai food. Bestselling dishes like pad thai, drunken noodles, and pad see you bear this out with their spicy and herbaceous notes and the hint of sweetness in their finish.
There is a quiet bustle of activity on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 14 as the staff gets ready for lunch service. The smell of basil infuses the atmosphere as Rojpanichkul and Anucha Keyoonrangsarid strip the leaves from the stems in what would normally be the dining room. The tables there are no longer set for service — they have become the prep area for the small kitchen and the staging area for takeout orders. Dine-in eating is on hold while the COVID-19 pandemic surges through the state.
Kanyaphat Sviraksa works steadily through the day at a table in the corner. She chops, peels, and slices fresh peppers and scallions, broccoli, onions, and the huge orange carrots that add crunch and flavor to the menu.
Rojpanichkul sets a bowl of rice and a steaming plate on a table as she prepares to eat lunch before the restaurant opens. The dish is ka prow, flavored with Asian basil, which Rojpanichkul describes as a combination of basil and mint. The herb is harder to find and more expensive than American basil, so it is only used in the staff’s meals — a traditional flavor to remind them of home.
The phone begins to ring and Tipwan Rattanakasikon readies the hostess station, restocking ingredients for the Thai iced tea and bubble tea she makes to order for customers.
The restaurant also offers beer and wine for takeout. Rojpanichkul said it helps sales a little to have Thai and Asian beers, which are hard to find in stores. “Thai food goes good with Thai beer,” she said.
Customers enter the upper dining area, where seats are lined up on either side of the room and red arrows on the floor direct traffic. Matt Wade, of East Boothbay, waits here for his order to come up. Tipwan Rattanakasikon rings him up from behind a plexiglass barrier and hands him the large, brown takeout bags before directing him out the restaurant’s back entrance. The pandemic protocols are second nature by now.
In the small kitchen, chefs Chanint Hanjitsuwan and Anucha Keyoonrangsarid fire the woks, ladling oil or sugar, or dropping tangles of noodles, into the wide vessels. In Thailand, the dishes they create are made so that customers add the spice, but at Best Thai, they make each dish to order, adding as little or as much spice as customers request.
Chef Surachai Rattanakasikon works the appetizer station, filling small, square wonton wrappers with chicken before folding them over and twisting them into their characteristic shape. The wontons are frozen to keep the filling firm before being fried to order. Surachai Rattanakasikon places eight crisp, golden pieces into each foil takeout container and passes them through to be bagged.
Best Thai is preparing to move from the space where it has thrived for the last 10 years. The restaurant will close briefly while it relocates next door, to the space at 88 Main St. that recently housed the Racha Noodle Bar.
Rojpanichkul reflected on the last year, among the most challenging so far in the restaurant’s 10-year lifespan. “There were times we almost closed,” she said. “But every time things got hard, someone helped.”
Rojpanichkul confessed that she didn’t initially understand the culture when she first came here, how the other restaurant owners in town embraced and supported her family’s business. “I thought they liked our food, that’s all,” she said.
But she knows now that the community as a whole believes strongly in supporting local businesses. She described how early in the pandemic, one customer bought a large quantity of gift cards from the restaurant to donate to local health care workers. Another customer almost brought her to tears as they expressed how much the ability to patronize their favorite restaurants, to find comfort in their favorite dishes, meant during such an anxious time.
“I feel I have to be here,” Rojpanichkul said. “I want to cook for Lincoln County, to be a part of local families. I serve them from my heart.”