If Chanpen seems like the only Thai restaurant in South Phoenix, it's probably because it is.
Of course, that's assuming you find it first. The small beige building, which sits on a barren stretch of East Broadway Road between 24th and 32nd streets, is easy to miss. Even Alan Ramonaitis, the son of the restaurant's owner and chef, Chanpen Ramonaitis (whose Thai name is Tuk), had trouble finding it when his mom first secured the lease.
"I drove by it a bunch of times," says Alan Ramonaitis, who works at the restaurant as a server along with his sister Lalida. "When I finally found it, it was small, looked run down, and was in the middle of a neighborhood with no businesses around it. I didn't want to say anything to my mom. It wasn't anything like the old place."
The "old place" was Chanpen Thai Cuisine in Glendale, a large, successful Thai restaurant that Chanpen, who came to Arizona in 2001 with her American husband, opened in 2004. Two years later, she was forced to sell it in order to quickly return to her home outside Bangkok to be with her ailing mother.
In 2011, Chanpen returned to the United States and seven months ago opened the South Phoenix Chanpen Thai Cuisine. Wanting a smaller, more manageable space in an area where Thai food didn't exist, Chanpen's unassuming restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, is an educational experience for South Phoenix locals who aren't familiar with the cuisine. And for those who are, it's a hidden gem filled with satisfying classic Thai dishes, as well as a few of Chanpen's more unique creations.
The menu features about 50 selections of mostly traditional Thai fare, like colorful curries rich with coconut milk, spicy salads kissed with lemon juice, and stir-fried dishes laden with crunchy vegetables. Chanpen makes everything from scratch, including most of the sauces. Prepared with deftness, her Thai dishes are wonderfully aromatic, lightly handled, and feature a well-balanced mix of several ingredients that make them taste much simpler than they really are.
"A lot of Thai food in America is too sweet," Ramonaitis says. "But my mom doesn't use a lot of sugar. And the flavors in her curries taste like they've been sectioned out instead of blended together and bland."
Whether they're cooked or raw, you can count on the crunchy vegetables exuding a farmers-market freshness, but the proteins aren't as successful overall and can be a bit dicey when it comes to quality. The shrimp and chicken are decent, faring better than the pork and beef. The clear standout, however, is the roast duck. Its sizable pieces of slick and tender meat add a rich and smoky flavor to dishes like basil-heavy spicy fried rice, a hot red curry flavored with herbs, or a comforting entrée of stir-fried cashews, bell peppers, carrots, onions, celery, and water chestnuts.
And when it comes to the spiciness Thai cuisine is known for, Chanpen stays on the conservative side. For those who like more of a sting, when you're asked, stay above three on the scale of one to five.
You could start with a street-food favorite, many of which are served alongside a lively cucumber relish made with homemade chile paste and topped with chopped peanuts and, sometimes, fresh slices of jalapeños. Standouts include little fried fish cakes (firm on the outside, bouncy within, and with a hint of spiciness) and golden ovals of airy and crispy Thai toast, perfumed with garlic and featuring a thin layer of ground chicken inside.
If you care for a salad, there is good larb, a popular dish in Thailand's neighboring country of Laos. Made with ground chicken flavored with fish sauce and lemon juice and mixed with slivers of red onion and mint, it's served at room temperature in a giant lettuce leaf perfect for wrapping the mixture into refreshing, spicy bites. Unfortunately, although listed on the menu, another Laos dish, tam som (spicy papaya salad), is no longer served. The restaurant's guests simply never request it.
"Most of our customers only know Chinese food," Alan says. "They think we're a take-out place or a buffet and ask for things like noodles with sweet-and-sour chicken. They start out slow and stay in the 'safe zone' with dishes like fried rice, but those that return are getting more adventurous and moving on to spicy fried rice and pad thai."
Given Chanpen's talents in the kitchen, few entrées on the menu fail to satisfy. But if you've come to Chanpen, you've come for the specials, more unique offerings and improvised dishes listed behind the counter and changed weekly. There may be a simple but satisfying eggplant stir-fry, in which large pieces of the dark purple and delicately sweet vegetable mix with onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and basil in a garlic-heavy sauce; or Chanpen's version of drunken noodles, the Chinese-influenced stir-fried and distinctively spicy noodle dish which, interestingly enough, she makes with spaghetti.
"It's usually made with rice noodles," says Alan, "but the less-sturdy spaghetti makes it taste like a spicy chow mein."
If you're an exceptionally adventurous Thai food diner and ask nicely, you may be fortunate enough to have Chanpen whip you up something off-menu: perhaps plump and pink stir-fried shrimp, veggies, and egg sprinkled with cilantro or lightly fried and crispy chunks of fish hidden underneath a generous helping of delectable pad ka pow, a spicy, basil-heavy stir fry. And if you have something special in mind — Thai sausages, perhaps — you can call the restaurant ahead of time and Chanpen will prepare it.
Dessert isn't so much an option as it is a complimentary thank-you for Chanpen's dine-in guests, those who have ventured into the tiny and bright, white-walled restaurant to sit at one of its five or six tables curiously topped with red snowflake-pattern tablecloths. Timed to arrive during the last few bites of a meal, it is an unexpected sweet treat of Chanpen's choosing: a scoop of green tea ice cream; delicately crispy fried bananas; or her version of the Thai-style dessert roti, made of long rectangles of flaky, crispy dough filled with warm banana and streaked with chocolate syrup.
"My mom doesn't care about starting over or building a business," Alan says. "She's a people person and just wants her customers to like her food. Even if most of them can't tell the difference now, she hopes the next time they eat Thai food somewhere else, they'll know what the good stuff tastes like."