Good heart, good food, Thai style: Thailand native opens restaurant in Altoona
An only child, Narong “Tay” Jaidee was close to his parents, a father who farmed fruit and a mother he watched in the kitchen in their Thailand home. He didn’t tell them he wanted to come to the United States until after he was accepted in a student exchange program that brought him to Pittsburgh in 2009.
After working in Subway restaurants for a time, he found a place more to his taste, Teerak Thai Restaurant in Indiana, Pa., where he worked for more than four years. The allure of owning his own restaurant brought him to Altoona, where he opened the area’s only exclusively Thai food restaurant last year.
“I’m so happy to find a place here. The customers really support me,” said the owner and manager of Jaidee Thai Restaurant in Ivyside Plaza. “It has been my dream to open my own Thai restaurant.”
Jaidee, 34, said central Pennsylvania reminds him of his hometown of Nan, in the northern, mountainous region of Thailand. He found Altoona after a local banker who was dining at the Indiana restaurant suggested Blair County. He visited several times, found the current location and spent several months renovating the space, including painting the walls vivid shades of orange and red.
“They say yellow makes customers hungry, but I rejected that,” he said. “I like more color so it’s warm and relaxing, but not boring.”
Jaidee, whose relationship with his parents is just fine as indicated by his father’s recent visit, has been busy since he opened.
“Many of our customers say they have never had Thai food. They come in, and they love it,” he said. “Thai is different from any other food. Sour, sweet, spicy, salty. You can have all four tastes on your plate at once.”
Thai food may have a reputation for being too spicy for some, but here you can pick your scale: mild, medium and spicy. Be sure to also let your server know if you have any allergies or other specific food preferences, as gluten-free and vegan options are available on the long menu.
Entrees with white rice can come with a choice of vegetables, tofu or chicken for $9.99. For another dollar, opt for beef, pork or veggie duck or veggie chicken (so-called fake meats), or for $2 more, add shrimp. If you prefer brown to white rice, that is another $1.
Jaidee’s specialties include Green Curry Spaghetti, which is sauteed spaghetti noodles with chicken or shrimp and bell peppers, peas, carrots, bamboo and basil leaves with a green curry sauce. (Don’t confuse the word curry in Asian cooking, which is another word for sauce, with the Indian powdered spice).
Another popular specialty is Salmon Mango Curry. It is grilled salmon on a bed of steamed mixed vegetables with a red curry made of bell peppers, mangoes, sweet peas and basil leaves.
Khao Soi is the most popular egg noodle soup that is a meal made from a coconut base topped with bean sprouts, julienned carrots, green and red onions, crispy noodles and your meat choice. Jaidee said it’s a recipe from Northern Thailand that fills and warms you up on a cold day.
Two of Jaidee’s most popular appetizers are a Grilled Shrimp Satay and Pork Bun, which is reminiscent of a juicy barbecue sandwich, but on a delightful Bao bun. It’s pork, but that’s the only ingredient Jaidee shares.
“It’s a secret,” he said with his signature laugh.
Jaidee uses as many fresh ingredients, including mango, as possible and makes his curries, or pastes, in-house. Once a month, he goes to Pittsburgh for specialty Asian items.
“I know all the ingredients,” thanks to those early days helping his mother in the kitchen and watching his father farm fruit, he said. “And, I love to cook.”
He did share that a dried chili pepper and the kaffir lime leaf are the base for his chili paste that is the spicy in his spicy.
The beverages are as adventurous as the menu, or you can bring your own beverage as he does not serve alcohol. Thai iced tea is sweet, but not like Southern tea, and it’s orange due to the spices added to the black tea. Thai bubble tea comes topped with cream and is available in four flavors — green tea, mango, taro and honeydew. Tapioca pearls that Jaidee makes from tapioca powder sink to the bottom of your glass, but you can slurp them through the extra large straw provided.
Zach Reidell likes the Thai iced tea, as well as all the curried dishes. He was dining recently with his grandmother, Johnette Keiser of Blue Knob who comes in about once a week.
“It’s our favorite Thai restaurant,” she said.
She knows it’s the only one in Altoona, but noted that “I could drive to State College to eat Thai. But if I lived in State College, I would drive here for it,” Keiser said.
“The dumplings are my favorite appetizer, but everything has been excellent,” she added. “We’ve never had anything bad.”
Ron and Dianne Macedonia of Altoona also come in about once a week.
“There is no favorite,” he said. “Everything is fantastic. And, not just the taste. I love the presentation.”
Added Dianne: “The people are so nice, too.”
That fits with his namesake: Jaidee means “good heart” in Thai.
Joel A. Weiss, who teaches at the nearby Penn State Altoona, said he also is a regular.
“I was here the first day … and (Jaidee) has kept it consistently excellent,” he said.
Weiss said he enjoys the Drunken Noodle lunch special, as well as the Cashew Nut on the entree menu. His favorite appetizer is the Chicken Satay with two dipping sauces that are “excellent.”
“Everything has been excellent,” he said. “It’s worth every penny.
“I’ve eaten Thai food all over the country, and his is really, really good. I have sent him many people.”
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.
Jaidee Thai Restaurant
519 E. 25th Ave., Ivyside Plaza, Altoona
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and
4 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and
4 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed on Monday
Prices: Appetizers include Crispy Spring Rolls for $3.25 and Steamed Mussels for $8.99; entrees start at $9.99; house specialties include Green Curry Spaghetti for $14.95; Thai curries start at $9.99; lunch specials start at $6.99
Notes: Call for reservations, takeout and catering; ask about gluten-free, vegan and allergy-conscious options