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Hooked on Thai

You may have heard some rumblings among the Northside set that you've got to try Pagoda Chinese Food. So you duck into the small, strip-mall restaurant near I-90 for some takeout. There's the standard fare on the steam table—fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, beef and broccoli—but then you catch a whiff of what's going on in the kitchen. All of a sudden, you have the urge to take a bath in some richly spiced coconut milk curry. That's the so-called secret of Pagoda Chinese: order the Thai food.

When Thai-born Pornthip Rodgers (call her Thip) purchased Pagoda Chinese Food five years ago, the restaurant had been slinging chow mein to Northsiders since the early '90s. She took over the kitchen and, as her daughter Sudarat Khieoduangdee (call her Suda) tells it, regulars started asking, why don't you try serving up some Thai food?

They started with pad thai and a couple curries, then put a tiny "Thai Specialties" section on the menu, below the Chinese food combos. Every Thai dish was listed with the little flame icon, signifying to the uninitiated that they were not messing around when it came to hot chilies. Before long, they'd converted many of their regulars from orange chicken to green curry, and word spread through the neighborhood. They started selling more Thai dishes from what amounted to a tenth of their menu than all the Chinese options combined.

"My mom puts a lot of care and love in her food," Suda says. "She doesn't want to serve food for food. She wants to serve love, care and quality."

And yes, you can taste that love. The pad thai is the perfect balance of sweet, sour and spicy, and you can totally see why people have been going bonkers for the stuff. Sitting in the tiny restaurant on a Friday evening, I notice that just about every one of the steady stream of customers orders it.

Suda isn't surprised. Her customers keep telling her they are hooked. And it's not just the food. "[People say Pagoda] is more like coming into a home than a restaurant," she says.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

That might sound a little cliche until you spend some time hanging out around Thip and Suda. Thip appears ageless, and is in constant motion. She shuffles in and out of the kitchen, greeting regulars with a huge smile and some light ribbing, answering the phone, bagging orders. The day I meet her, Thip tells me she was at the restaurant until 2 in the morning the day before frying chicken, and back again by 8. Most of the last five years, she's run Pagoda as a mostly one-woman show, with help from Suda, six days a week.

She's so busy, in fact, that she's only able to answer a question or two between cooking and taking orders. Luckily, Suda has a few minutes to talk. She says they are from Bangkok, where Thip owned a copy company until her husband, Suda's father, passed away. When the copy shop went out of business, Thip opened a small restaurant. One day, the way Suda tells it, Thip was sitting on a Bangkok bus when it broke down. She looked over to see a handsome American boy and decided she better go talk to him. They married and came to Missoula. Suda, now 22, joined her mom in Missoula nine years ago, and has been her Pagoda sidekick since she took over. And she's proud of the work they've done together.

"It's really hard to get ingredients here, especially in Montana, so we try really hard to make it as much like what you get in Thailand as possible," Suda says.

Thip brings ingredients from Spokane and Seattle, and makes authentic sauces and curries. They go through buckets of fresh curry paste and cases of the stuff that makes Thai food so aromatic and distinctive: lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal.

Starting this week, a whole page of new Thai menu options debuts at Pagoda. Thip and Suda aren't completely giving up on Chinese food (folks still love their kung pao chicken) but the focus has shifted to the fresh Thai food they do so well. They're adding staff to deal with the increased demand and you'll be able to find them serving up curries at Out to Lunch this summer.

Just know that if you do stop by the restaurant and manage to snag one of the five tables, be prepared to be thoroughly charmed by the mother-daughter power-duo. You'll also likely end up hooked.

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