The number of Asian restaurants in Williamston doubled last month. After Miso Sushi & Grill closed last year, Szechuan Garden became the only place in town to go when your cravings leaned toward the Far East. But on Labor Day weekend, first-time restaurateurs Jeff and Jindamanee “Jin” Story opened Thai Nation Bistro, featuring a style of Thai cooking new to Metro Lansing palates.
“Most people are familiar with high Thai cuisine, which is the type of cooking that’s native to Bangkok and other parts of southern Thailand,” Jeff Story said. “Jin is from the northeastern part of the country where the (prevailing style) is called home cooking, which is a little different. It’s the style she grew up with and what I came to love when I lived there.”
Story, a Flint native, met his wife in Southeast Asia in 2009. He was working as an aircraft maintenance engineer and she was a physical therapist. They fell in love, got married, and in 2012 she gave birth to a son. The following year they moved to the U.S., though, because their boy needed heart surgery.
“He went through surgery in August of 2013 and was given a clean bill of health, but that December he died,” Story said. “There was nothing that could have been done — it just happened. It was devastating.”
The couple moved into his family’s house in Flint. As they recovered, she started cooking for friends and family in the home style she missed. Both of her parents are Thai chefs and had taught her about working in a kitchen.
“People started telling us to open a restaurant, but it took a little while before we really got the message,” Story said. “It was only after trying Thai food around the state that we realized there wasn’t anything similar to what Jin was doing. There just wasn’t the level of freshness that we were used to.”
Story said the key to his wife’s style is using all fresh ingredients, preferably purchased, prepped and cooked the same day. Only with fresh ingredients, he said, does the true nature of Thai cooking emerge.
“These are dishes that use all five flavors in every bite, and you can’t get that out of a can or a bottle,” Story said. “There are a lot of places that have a Thai sign out in front but don’t adhere to the basic rules of Thai cooking. We’re trying to show Michigan what real Thai is like.”
The Storys selected Williamston as their location after looking at possibilities elsewhere in the state. Story said he was impressed by Williamston’s growth in recent years, as well as its openness to trying new things.
“We felt at home here right away,” Story said. “It seems like there’s this artisan food movement going on in Williamston, with people cooking from scratch with a real focus on quality. It’s exciting to be part of that.”
Last year, Williamston joined the craft beer boom when Old Nation Brewing Co. opened. And earlier this year, Nick Gavrilides, owner of downtown Lansing hotspot Soup Spoon Café, bought the 10-year-old Gracie’s Place restaurant and transformed it into Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro. Although the name of Story’s restaurant bears similarities to both places, he swears it’s a coincidence.
“I didn’t even make the connection between Old Nation and Thai Nation until after we opened,” Story said. “Even though we’re focused on home style Thai, we incorporate the entire country, so that’s where the ‘nation’ part of our name came in. As for the ‘bistro’ part, that name gets misused a lot. To me, a bistro is a place where you can hear dishes rattling in the back, cooks calling back and forth to each other, and you’re eating in an informal, warm and welcoming environment. That’s what we’re hoping to project.”
The roughly 2,000-square-foot restaurant seats 48 and uses some of the same Eastern décor left over by the previous tenant, Miso Sushi. Story says all the sauces, dressings and bases are made in house from scratch, with the vegetarian options designed to be gluten-free and vegan. And while you’ll find traditional dishes such as pad Thai and tom yum soup on the menu, diners will also be treated to some regional delicacies — such as Thai tacos and chicken sausage/cabbage wraps — that haven’t previously been explored in Metro Lansing.
“People are going to think we invented that taco, but when I lived in Thailand, that’s something I used to be able to get 50 feet from my door every day,” Story said. “That’s as traditional as you can get.”
And local Thai cuisine enthusiasts may be in for a surprise when they make it to Thai Nation. Lamai Feighner, former owner of Lamai’s Kitchen in Old Town and Lansing’s eastside, is one of the restaurant’s cooks. Story also employs some of his Flint neighbors, who work in the kitchen and on the dining floor.
“Flint’s been through a lot in recent years, so I’m trying to do what I can to help out,” Story said. “When I had the opportunity to create some jobs, I made a commitment to hiring people from my own neighborhood. I’m a tough guy to work for, but they’re happy and I’m happy.”
Story said business has been steadily getting better every day, and he already has his eyes set on locations in other parts of the state — including downtown Flint. He said the Capitol Theatre, which is currently undergoing a $21 million renovation, is a “dream location” for another restaurant.
“I’ve been in love with that building since I was a little kid. If I could open a Thai Nation in there, I’d be very happy,” Story said. “But first, we have to perfect what we’re doing here. Right now, we’re just trying to stay focused on making the best Thai food we can possibly make.”
Thai Nation Bistro 725 W. Grand River Avenue, Suite 3, Williamston 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily (517) 996-6092, thainationbistro.com