What’s Cookin’: Local Favorite

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Using only word-of-mouth advertising, Kati Thai Cuisine is hooking a growing number of customers who shower praise on the restaurant’s authentic dishes made from fresh ingredients and cooked when ordered.

story by ANITA STIEFEL | photos by ANITA STIEFEL and RANDY GRIDER

Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect when I walked through the door because the only Thai food I ever tried was once upon a time at one of those generic Asian-style buffet restaurants. But I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised on my visit to Kati Thai Cuisine in Gadsden, Ala., I was amazed at how good it is.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Kati Thai is off the beaten path, so it truly is a hidden gem, tucked away just off Noccalula Road, about three miles east of Exit 188 on Interstate 59. Once you’ve been there, it’s a given that you’ll be back.

“I could eat here every day – I could eat this every day,” says Casie Baker of Gadsden, pointing to her plate of Drunken Noodles. “Or the Pad Thai Chicken,” she quickly adds. Baker was helping her friend set up a boutique a couple of doors down when they discovered the restaurant. “We’d never had Thai food, so we thought we’d give it a try,” she says. “I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m here at least once a week, and I think she gets take-out from here just about every day.”

On this particular weekday afternoon, there are only a few customers gobbling down a late lunch, and all call themselves Kati regulars.

“Is it good? Well I’m eating by myself,” Baker laughs. “If I’ll come here by myself, it’s that good. I crave it.”

A grinning man sitting nearby chimes in: “Yeah, it’s really good. Every time I’m on this side of town I come here. Sometimes I take the long way home just so I’ll be in the neighborhood. When I was in the Army, I traveled around a lot, so I’ve had lots of Thai food, even in Thailand, and this here is the best I’ve ever eaten, period.”

He turns away from the conversation suddenly, falling under a trance when his own Drunken Noodles arrive.

“This is probably the best food in town,” another lady confides in me. Her favorite is the Pad Thai with shrimp, while her daughter always gets the Kapow pork. They didn’t want to be identified because their own family is in the restaurant business. But Kati Thai Cuisine really has no competition in northeast Alabama. The authentic Thai restaurants closest to Kati are in Birmingham and Atlanta.

In the kitchen, father and son Chaisit and Mario Tongsuvone work side by side, creating flavorful dishes that keep locals and Gadsden-area visitors coming back for more.

“These are my father’s recipes, but I’ve been cooking for the family since I was a kid,” says Mario, who moved to Gadsden from Thailand in 1999 at age 17. He embraced American culture, but the one thing missing was food from home. “There was no Thai food here, so I had to cook. It was either that or drive to Atlanta, so I became the cook for my family.”

Mario is such a good cook, in fact, that his father decided they should go into the food business. Kati Thai opened in March 2011, and the 55-seat restaurant has been packed ever since, just from word-of-mouth advertising by satisfied customers. In fact, Kati has an almost-unheard-of 97 percent rating on the restaurant review website Urbanspoon.com.

“I only use fresh ingredients, and the food is cooked when you order it, not sitting around under a heat lamp,” Mario says. “Everything is made from scratch using fresh vegetables and herbs right out of the garden.”

Mario says there are three basic sauces, and adding different herbs and spices changes the flavor dramatically to create the various menu items.

Dishes are made from your choice of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or tofu and served in rice noodles, jasmine fried rice or steamed brown rice. The food can be as mild or as spicy as your taste buds desire.

I start with an appetizer of spring rolls with sweet-and-sour sauce. Although you can get spring rolls at a lot of restaurants, what makes these special is that they are hand rolled in-house as opposed to the frozen, packaged variety. They are perfectly crispy on the outside and chock-full of steamy veggies on the inside.

For my main course, I order the spectacularly delicious Pineapple Fried Rice, and no one flinches when I ask for it vegan-style with tofu instead of the chicken and shrimp with which it’s usually made.

“We can make just about anything on the menu vegetarian or vegan, and that’s something else you can’t get around here,” explains Mario’s fiancée, Patty Trongjittham, who manages the dining room and customer service. “We have several customers who are vegetarian and vegan or have special dietary needs.”

“Rice and rice noodles are naturally gluten-free,” Mario says. “And I don’t use MSG or any other chemical or artificial ingredients. You can see what’s in the dishes on the menu, so if you don’t want something all you have to do is ask us to leave it out or substitute something else for it. We can be flexible like that since we don’t cook your food until you order it.”

You can definitely taste the love in this food, and you’d expect to pay more for such high-quality and personal attention to detail. But Kati Thai is inexpensive, with $4-$7 appetizers and $7-$12 entrees. The staff welcomes takeout orders and prepares large party trays for catering. Just call in advance. Although the restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol, customers are welcome to bring their own wine or beer, and wait staff will provide glasses and ice.

“We try to keep it fresh, authentic and family friendly,” Trongjittham says.

“We don’t have a kids’ menu because most parents who bring their kids here want them to try something new, but we can make a small plate of noodles or rice with steamed chicken on request.”

Kati Thai’s desserts are a big hit with customers of all ages. “We make homemade, coconut-milk ice cream and coconut cake that are really popular,” Trongjittham says. “There’s one lady who orders a whole coconut cake every week.”

I opted for the sweet rice for dessert, just because it sounded so intriguing. And yes, like everything else I tasted at Kati Thai Cuisine, it was a delicious discovery.

Be aware the restaurant is closed on Mondays because you don’t want to be disappointed when your new cravings for Kati Thai Cuisine kick in.

And trust me, they will.

If You Go

GETTING THERE: Kati Thai Cuisine is at 102 Eble Street, Gadsden, AL 35904.
HOURS: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Sunday
MORE INFO: 256-467-4221
SEE NOCCALULA FALLS: Kati Thai Cuisine is right across Noccalula Road from Noccalula Falls Park, a 250-acre recreation area with a magnificent, 90-foot waterfall that’s one of the most visited natural attractions in Alabama. You can visit the falls year round, but the park is closed during parts of winter. From Nov. 28 to Dec. 23, the park is decorated in holiday lights for Christmas at the Falls. Gates are open 5-9 p.m.

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