“The (restaurant’s) new owner came in one day and asked how much I wanted for it,” Xiong says with a little smile. “It wasn’t even for sale, but I said, ‘Make me an offer.’” The Laos native had spent nearly 40 years working in Asian restaurant kitchens since arriving in the U.S. in the mid-‘70s. In 2012, after his youngest daughter had graduated from college and moved away, Xiong thought he could hang up his apron. Never mind that he had a loyal following of diners, including many workers at nearby Michigan State University — he was ready for a break. His former location became the Chinese restaurant, Gourmet Kitchen, and Xiong unofficially retired.
But never underestimate the sway of a bored spouse.
“My wife’s a little younger than me, and she wasn’t ready to retire yet,” Xiong said. “She really missed cooking, so what could I do? I started looking for another restaurant.”
And so after a brief search and three months of renovation, Xiong, 60, opened New Thai Kitchen last month in Meridian Township with his wife, Chou. It’s the former location for Sip ‘N Snack, which occupied that space in the heart of the little retail district for 56 years.
“I used to drive by here all the time on the way to the hardware store, and I always thought it would be a great place to have a restaurant,” Xiong said. “When this (space) became available, I jumped at it. But it needed a lot of work.”
They moved into the space in June and spent three months renovating it. Work included a complete overhaul, including new floors, walls and kitchen equipment. Xiong estimates they spent about $80,000, and has left room to expand into an adjacent space, which serves as the restaurant’s dry storage room for now.
The menu features a blend of old favorites and updates to traditional Thai fare, including three types of Pad Thai — traditional, Americanized and curry. Other traditional dishes include Pad Kee Mao (aka, drunken noodles) and Panang. His spices, sauces and noodles are all flown in from Thailand.
“I try to make it authentic as possible, for customers who like authentic,” he said. “But I’ve also modified some dishes for American tastes. You have to.”
Xiong hopes to eventually add a beer and wine license, but for now, he just wants to lure his old clientele back.
“About 70 percent of my (former) customers have found me again, and business has been good,” Xiong said. “Now I’m hoping everyone else finds me, too.”
New Thai Kitchen will have a ribbon cutting ceremony at 3 p.m. today, featuring free refreshments until 5 p.m.
New Thai Kitchen 4690 Okemos Road, Okemos 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday- Saturday; closed Sunday (517) 574-5322