It’s easy to drive past Ubon Thai Kitchen, but behind its bright-orange facade and the holiday lights strewn around it, the food is not to miss.
“I couldn’t work in a restaurant unless there was enough people saying, ‘This is great food,’” owner Peter Martin says.
And head chef Saengnapha Phonsaen has similar sentiments for the cuisine of her native Thailand: “I don’t like other countries’ food,” Phonsaen says. “I like my country’s food.”
Neither has previous restaurant experience, but Martin bought the original Ubon, which used to be a food truck off Oregon Highway 99, and reopened it in a new brick-and-mortar location in May 2016 after his wife told him she wanted to start a restaurant.
The previous owners trained Phonsaen in how to cook their recipes, a transition that Martin compares to a paint-by-numbers kit.
“Their menu and their food was very popular, and they had a really strong following,” Martin says, “so we did exactly the same thing as they did — at least initially.”
The new Ubon, registered officially with the state as “Saeng’s Kitchen” for Phonsaen, offers more than 60 new and old dishes. Its Eugene-style pad thai and regular pad thai, holdovers from the original menu, are the restaurant’s most popular dishes and are what Martin recommends for those new to Thai cuisine.
Prices range from $6 to $16 for main courses like khao yum (a crispy rice salad that’s Martin’s personal favorite), tamarind stir-fry and green papaya salad. With most meals, Ubon offers a variety of protein options, such as pork, shrimp and squid. For health- and ethics-conscious diners, there are vegan, gluten-friendly, low- and no-salt options for most dishes.
Ubon also offers varying degrees of “Thai spiciness,” with levels from a mild 1 up to a “god-awful hot” level of 6.
“You have to really beg to get hot food in another Thai restaurant, right?” Martin says. “They don’t want to give you hot food because they don’t want to remake the dish. But we do that.”
A steady stream of customers order the Eugene-style pad thai. I order mine with chicken and a spice level of 1.5, or “a wee bit of spice added.” (Though a fan of spicy food, I don’t want to end up reordering like some patrons do, Martin says.)
The friendly server says she’s addicted to Thai iced tea, which is a dark-apricot colored drink popular in Southeast Asia consisting of black tea, condensed milk and sugar. It’s too easy to be mesmerized by its somewhat sweet yet savory flavor and to end up sucking it all up in one swoop.
As I eat the Eugene-style pad, an aromatic mix of fried garlic, green onions, fish sauce, lightly cooked vegetables and slick rice noodles, outside, the sun seems to become brighter.
“I make sure everything comes out right,” Phonsaen says.
Ubon Thai Kitchen is at 900 W. 7th Avenue (Taco Loco’s old location), open from 11 am to 3 pm and from 4 to 9 pm Tuesday through Friday. On weekends, it’s open from noon to 9 pm. 541-689-0033. More at facebook.com/SaengsKitchen.