by Kirby Lindsay, posted 10 December 2014
In January, Kaosamai Thai Restaurant & Catering – begun with the dining room at 36th Street & Phinney Avenue – will celebrate a significant anniversary. Ten years ago, Doug & Sumalee Somerville, the owners of Kaosamai, took a big risk as they launched the first Thai Truck in Seattle, and finally brought fresh, hot Thai dishes to walk-up customers all over the city, at weddings, parties, festivals, parks, sidewalks and in South Lake Union.
‘A Fun Ride’
The Kaosamai Restaurant began in 2001, when the couple leased a house long-ago converted into offices for the Baby Diaper Service. They spent five months converting the building into an elegant and spacious restaurant, located (at that time) in an area considered ‘just outside’ of Fremont. “Everybody told me that it’s going to start growing,” explained Doug Somerville recently of the neighborhood. It didn’t seem to be a problem, as he observed, “We were pretty popular right off the start.”
Within a year, four more Thai restaurants opened in Fremont (which became ‘Thai-mont’ and ‘Little Bangkok’.) Somerville admitted, “we were worried about it.” Still, the food, the sun deck they built for the restaurant, the food, having a few off-street parking spaces, and (did we mention) the food made Kaosamai stand out from the rest of the crowd.
It may have helped that the Somervilles had already built a following before opening up the brick-and-mortar restaurant. When they met, Sumalee had been working at Jai Thai, in Fremont, and the couple decided to put their skills (hers in the kitchen, and his in logistics) to work for their own business, selling meals at fairs. Together they traveled around the State with a trailer. At each fair, they would unload all the equipment, set up the booth, tent and tables, warm the appliances and hope crowds would come find them. According to Doug Somerville, they enjoyed the work – and feeding the big crowds that turned out – but customers kept telling them, ‘You are serving way too good of food. You need a restaurant.’
Within a year they got the restaurant, and have done well. “We’ve enjoyed Fremont very much,” Somerville said, “We’ve married customers, they’ve had kids and we’ve watched them grow! It’s been a fun ride for us, and it still is!”
‘It Still Is’
The expansion into catering took longer, mostly due to Sumalee’s reluctance to serve what she considered sub-standard food. In 2004, they started to talk about it because nobody was offering Thai catering. Yet, Sumalee and her other cooks agreed that the food won’t be as good after traveling to a location. “She didn’t like it,” Doug Somerville explained, “Thai food doesn’t stand up well to being packed in a box.” The food loses the luminous, glistening look that Sumalee Somerville takes pride in serving.
Yet, Doug Somerville felt inspired by his first sight of the new Seattle Taco Wagons. He approached a Wagon owner, chatted him up over tacos, and went home to convince his wife. He assured her that they would be able to build a truck with a kitchen, a stove and a hood as good at the one in the restaurant, with a working wok. He talked to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, and had to submit drawings there, for the electrical, plumbing, water and gas, before the Seattle – King County Health Department took his calls.
Doug Somerville built his first Thai Food Truck by converting a former bread delivery truck. The compact vehicle has since been to weddings, celebrations and parked beside the construction zone in South Lake Union. When the Seattle Department of Parks & Recreation finished building the Lake Union Park, they asked Kaosamai to stay on serving meals during the week. As one of the first non-taco vendors, the orange-and-black truck took many by surprise, until they tasted the food, and became converts. (Check the Twitter feed at @ThaiFoodTruck.)
In two years, with catering jobs coming in, sometimes on top of each other, the first small truck couldn’t handle all the work. So, Somerville went to work converting a larger (24’ from bumper-to-bumper) Snap-On Tools Truck, with two working woks this time.
They still have both trucks out driving from site to site, using a City of Seattle Mobile Food permit to serve walk-up customers around the region on weekdays. Most weekends they have catering jobs, serving guests delicious and appetizing hot Thai food at parties all over our area.
From the Kaosamai Catering Trucks, customers can sample a scaled back menu from the restaurant. They can get the same tasty fried rice, curry, noodles, spring rolls, and combo dishes, although “fifty percent of people walk up and say ‘Phad Thai,’” Somerville observed. In winter, the trucks serve a lot more soups too. In many ways, Somerville admitted, “the trucks seem to be doing better,” than the restaurant.
Not Done Yet
Over 13 years later, the restaurant hasn’t moved although its location at N 36th & Phinney has become much more in the middle of Fremont. Thai Truck customers do seek it out, and the Somervilles encourage that, for dining in the comfort of the dining room (expanded by 15’ in 2008 to include a bar,) or on the sun deck, and tasting the broader menu.
“Sumalee is always trying new specials here,” her proud husband proclaimed. They’ve recently been serving a blackened halibut with mango salad, a rubbed roast pork, and a Thai omelet made without eggs, “it’s more like a crepe,” Somerville explained.
Kaosamai Thai Restaurant & Catering also offers Phad Thai, at all their locations, which keep going strong – like Doug & Sumalee Somerville. “After two hip operations,” Doug Somerville explained, “I’m semi-retiring.” He might rely on nephews to serve the Phad Thai from the Thai Trucks, but he also said that he’s not done yet. “I really like tinkering around with stuff. I’ve really enjoyed building our location here,” he said of the restaurant, “and the trucks.”
If you haven’t yet tried Kaosamai, why not? The restaurant is easy to find in Fremont, and use Twitter or Facebook to locate the two trucks. If you already know the wonderful fare Sumalee and her staff deliver, make sure to wish them a happy 10th anniversary – and a wish for a long and delicious future for us all!
- As Fremont Surges Westward
- by Kirby Lindsay, April 29, 2013
- Viva Taco Wagons (Long Live Seattle Taco Wagons)
- by Kirby Lindsay, August 5, 2009 in the North Seattle Herald-Outlook
- Weather The Changes Of Winter Weather
- by Kirby Lindsay, November 23, 2011
©2014 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.