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Vol. 6, No. 8 | The Realities of Take-Out and Thai Tea with Parnass Savang
I remember exactly the first time I had Thai iced tea. I was in New York and met up with my friend Steve at his favorite Thai restaurant. He asked me if I’d ever had Thai iced tea. I hadn’t. He said it reminded him of carrot juice. Steve was referencing a Jamaican concoction of strained carrots, condensed milk, and nutmeg. When I took my first sip, I understood what he meant. The tastes are different for sure, but both are bright orange, creamy, and slightly spiced. They could be distant relatives.
The other day I was driving and had a hankering for Thai iced tea (but maybe it was for carrot juice, who knows). It made me wonder what Parnass Savang’s first memory of Thai tea was. Parnass is the co-owner of Talat Market, a modern authentic Thai restaurant using local Georgia ingredients. I’ve been enamored with Parnass’ food since I tasted it during his very successful pop-up run at Gato. I had a chance to catch up with Parnass last week and while we did touch on Thai tea, I found his perspective on the realities of take-out far more interesting.
Shannon: How long do you think you guys will do to-go?
Parnass: We're gonna do it for a bit. We are planning to open for dine-in probably next month. Very limited and you can only do a reservation. I think it'll be really nice. For me, I can finally make food that I can put on a plate. And I can put fried things on there. And herbs that don't wilt throughout transport.
Shannon: It’s so tricky transporting certain dishes through take-out.
Parnass: We learned the hard way…a lot. It seems to be the story of Talat Market and myself. Doing fried foods is a bad idea. The thing is nobody tells you what's happening at the other end.
Shannon: How did you guys figure that out?
Shannon: That fried food was a bad idea.
Parnass: We left some fried shrimp on the side for like 15 minutes and I went back and ate them and I go...s*!@ this was a bad idea. But at a pop-up, it would be good. Once it comes out the fryer, two minutes it hits your table, crispy ready to go. But yeah, this to-go thing...I made a statement a long time ago to a magazine. I said that I would never do to-go. And I don't like it. It's not who we are.
Shannon: I don't think anybody does. I don't think anyone likes eating this way. For me as a fan of what you guys did at Gato, I can't wait for dine-in to begin because I agree with you, that's a part of the Talat Market experience.
Parnass: You know as a pop-up it's easier. You don't have bills and you don't have adult responsibilities, you're just like a wild teenager... just full of ideas and the repercussions aren't that big. But as a restaurant when something doesn't sell, when something doesn't trend or track and your bottom line is scary and you can't pay your bills...the government's knocking...the loan people are knocking and it's a little scary and you're like: Alright! I’ll do pad thai. I'll do it for like a month.
Shannon: And have you found that that's been popular…when you do pad thai or…
Parnass: Yeah those dishes...red curry, pad thai….I mean, they’re popular for a reason. I've learned that all the dishes that I was knocking, they come from a place where...there's a reason why they're there, why people love them. It's made me humble. There’s nothing to hate about this cuisine. There’s a lot of good things. You just have to make good pad thai rather than use ketchup in it or cut corners. Try to take the harder way, the right way, so the flavor is better.
Shannon: One of the things I noticed is that you guys have stayed closed. You could open, but you’ve made a decision not to. Why have you've waited this long?
Parnass: Well, we started our business expecting to open for dine-in, but when we had like a week heads up of what's about to happen, we literally ditched all our plans about hiring extra staff, completing the restaurant interior. All the things we were stressed about, we just put it aside and we just focused on takeout. So we didn't really develop systems for dine-in or anything like that for a long time. If we were gonna open for dine-in, it would be a mess because we don't have the tools to do it right now. I thought it would be easy to do, but my staff informed me of all the procedures...the silverware we need...the staff...so that's why we haven't opened for dine-in—because we aren't ready yet. But now we're gearing ourselves up to do that and it's taken like two months to get to this point because we need the revenue...the money to buy certain things. You can't build stuff out if you don't have money, so you have to wait patiently.
Shannon: I was driving one day and thought about Thai tea and then wondered what your first memory is of Thai tea.
Parnass: My first memory of it was in America, not in Thailand. I grew up in my dad's Thai restaurant, Danthai in Lawrenceville and they served super sweet Thai tea. I remember him making...well, my mom would make it. My mom would make the Thai tea and she would make a big batch and it would sit on the counter cooling down. Every time she made a fresh batch, I’d go, can I get a cup?
In Thailand, they call iced tea, cha yen. They don't call it Thai tea. The orange color, the red color that's not normal. It's actually food coloring. I thought it was something natural but, they just do it. I don't know why they do it. It is a thing and everybody's accepted it, but the tea mixture is a black tea. Like pad thai, I was looking down at Thai tea and saying, I'm not gonna have Thai tea at my restaurant. It's too expected. I went on a trip with my business partner Rod to Thailand to just kind of kick it and learn about Thai food more and show him Thai food in its own context and my friend brought us to a Thai tea shop. And this guy, for a period of his life, he was making Thai tea for the Royal King and he had a uniform and a whole set up to serve Thai tea to him. He was like a barista and he had his own blend. Being there, Rod and I each got like four Thai teas and we were on a sugar high but we gained an appreciation for that. So now we have Thai tea on our menu but we don't do condensed milk we do fresh coconut milk. That's our spin on it. There's a big brand that they use in Thailand, that everybody uses, it's called the Hand brand. We found some at Buford Highway. I bought two boxes of it and we use it to make our Thai tea.
Shannon: When I was coming in, the City of Atlanta was outside.
Parnass: We applied for a permit to expand our patio dining into the street. They're seeing if our restaurant can do that and if we pass they'll build something on the street. Then we can have dining out there...street food. Thai street food. (Smiles)
*Interview edited for brevity and clarity.