Someone hungry once said the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but Jaa Suwanannan, a Thai native and Pittsburgh immigrant knows that food is also the quickest way to Pittsburgh’s heart. Suwannanan and her husband, Metodi Haralambiev, opened My Thai, a Dormont Thai restaurant replete with Thai dancers and traditional Thai preparation methods, to show the South Hills what Thai food and culture is all about, and why it’s worth sharing.
Suwannanan comes from a family of cooks, “My grandfather sent my grandmother to restaurants all over Thailand so she could try all the best food and learn how to cook it.” As a child, she grew up eating “spectacular” Thai food, and later learned how to cook it. Haralambiev, a native of Bulgaria, leaves the Thai food and recipes up to his Thai wife, but calls himself “a kind of expert” in beer and wine selection. He manages the restaurant’s drinks and the business details.
Located at 3024 West Liberty Avenue, the new restaurant boasts curries green and yellow, red, spicy and mild along with occasional specials and limited edition menu items announced on My Thai’s Facebook page. But the noodle, curry, rice and many other dishes aren’t what’s most interesting about the new business; on Thursdays and Sundays, they also have Thai dancers performing live in the restaurant.
Thai dance is a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years in Thailand, and while it seems a strange thing to pair with dinner, that’s exactly what’s traditional about it. Thai royalty used to have dancers perform each time they were served a meal, making dancing and food an important part of celebrations and festivals. Each dance is elaborate, tells a story and the details are key, “The outfits, the shoes, even the flowers in the dancers’ hair must be different for each dance,” says Suwannanan, explaining that the outfits need to coordinate with the historical narrative. It’s a lot of work for the dancers, but “We want to treat our neighbors and customers like royalty.”
The dancers have also begun to branch out into other arenas and have performed at several birthday parties, events and even Point Park University since the restaurant’s November opening. They’re also are slated to dance in Pittsburgh’s 2015 Folk Festival, in May. Suwannanan sees the dancers as ambassadors of Thai culture and is thrilled with Pittsburgh’s reception of them.
“We would like to expand and do more of this.” Haralambiev sees the opening of My Thai as just the beginning of community education about Thai culture.