The last thing Vipada “Ben” Chitratont liked to do when growing up in Thailand was cook, to the point that she would trade chores with her sister to get out of spending time in the kitchen.
“I like to eat, but didn’t like to eat that much,” she joked.
But a lot can change in a few decades. Today, Chitratont is the owner of Thai Garden & Noodle House, which has two locations at 4410 S. and 900 East and 868 E. 900 South, in the heart of Salt Lake City’s fashionable and gay-friendly 9th and 9th neighborhood. Both the 900 East location and its sister, which opened its doors just five months ago, are well-known among Utah foodies for serving some of the finest Thai food the valley offers, including spicy curries, stir frys, fried rice and noodle dishes like its popular Pad Thai. In total, Chitratont offers 34 main dishes and a number of appetizers, salads and soups like Tom Yum and Tom Kha, a tomato-based and coconut-based soup, respectively. Most options, Chitratont noted, can be made vegetarian, a fact which makes the restaurant one of 9th and 9th’s most popular eateries.
“I noticed that people on 9th and 9th like tofu a lot,” said Chitratont. Of course, she noted, non-vegetarians can add beef, shrimp or chicken to most dishes as well. Additionally, stir fries can be made vegan (the curries all include fish sauce).
Chitratont said that her journey back into the kitchen began in 1992, when she came to Utah to study to be a pharmaceutical technician. To support herself while at Salt Lake Community College, she took a job in Salt Lake City’s restaurant business. Here, she quickly noticed that Utah had few restaurants that served authentic Thai food like that she had grown up eating.
“[I thought] if I had a chance, someday I would open a restaurant to do it the way I liked,” she said.
And what Chitratont likes is spice. While many Thai restaurants in Salt Lake City tend to serve sweeter curries, Chitratont favors fresh and dry chilis. Customers, of course, may choose exactly how spicy their dishes should be.
“Most Americans think medium is spicy,” she said. “When people order hot in my restaurant, I say it’s really hot.”
Each table at the restaurant also comes well-stocked with condiments such as sugar, chili flakes and vinegar, allowing diners to change their food’s flavor as they please. The condiments, said Chitratont, are common fixtures in Thailand.
“[The condiments] are kind of fun, I think, for people to learn and do,” she said.
While Chitratont said that many people thought she was “crazy” to open a second location during a recession, she noted, “I just have an instinct that I can do it.” A huge fan of the 9th and 9th area, she said she had been looking to establish a restaurant in the neighborhood for roughly three years before purchasing the house that she remodeled into a café. The new restaurant, she said, is frequented by several regulars, some of whom come in for lunch or dinner at least three times a week.
“They love it and they are amazing people,” she said.
Chitratont not only likes her customers, but the city that likes her restaurants and the mountains that surround it.
“When I came here, I didn’t like it at all because I came from a big city [near Bangkok] and it seemed really quiet,” she explained. “But I got used to it. In ten minutes I can drive to Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood or Millcreek, or I can go downtown. It’s really convenient and not too crowded.”
She hopes that QSaltLake readers will come to either of her locations and “give me a chance to serve them and try my food.”