It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time not too long ago when Thai restaurants were off the grid of Toronto’s culinary scene.
But in 1982, change began. Inside an auburn brick building on Elm Street, wooden bells arrived from Thailand and were latched to the ceiling of one of the city’s first Thai restaurants: Bangkok Garden.
This year, the establishment will raise a glass to its 40th birthday. Alongside this anniversary is the celebration of Thai food’s evolution over the past four decades and its success at carving out a central place on the culinary palettes of Torontonians.
“In 1982, people didn’t know,” Chef William Thetsombandith told CTV News Toronto, referring to the dish now synonymous with Thai food in Toronto – pad thai.
But with time, customers gravitated to the infamous noodle dish, which Thetsombandith credits to its dynamic range when it comes to flavour: “Sweet, sour, salty and spicy.”
In the establishment’s early days, not only was their décor imported from Thailand, but their staple spices and herbs were too.
“At that time, it’s very much like, we are the only Thai restaurant in Toronto,” Thetsombandith said.
The origin of Bangkok Garden began in the city it’s named after. Sherry Brydson, a member of the ultra-wealthy Thomson family, travelled to Thailand. There, she became enamored by Thai food to the extent that when she returned, she brought physical pieces of Thailand – like blue and white dishes with floral trim and stones she later placed in a koi pond at the restaurant – home with her.
When Brydson returned to Toronto, she opened Bangkok Garden on Elm Street.
Bankok Garden’s pad thai helped push the restaurant to success. (Hannah Alberga)
While the establishment prides itself on traditional dishes – pad thai, spring rolls, tom yum and red curry – it has ventured beyond its core culinary conventions, specifically in recent years.
In the past, one of the establishment’s attractions was its all-you-can-eat buffet. But, when public health experts discouraged close contacts and encouraged the highest standards of hygiene, the age-old tradition of scooping your own food from a stainless steel warming tray veered on taboo.
To pivot, Bangkok Garden brought the buffet directly to customers in the form of an unlimited tasting menu.
“Our buffet style is still there, but it’s at the table instead of traditional,” Thetsombandith said.
In corresponding fashion of delivering dishes directly to customers, the restaurant took to the streets of Toronto in the form of a food truck. When they went beyond the walls of Bangkok Garden, their menu did too.
A Thai burger and crispy chicken wings tossed in sweet sriracha sauce were introduced, borrowing from Thai flavours, but in a new format.
“Those items we created during the pandemic just as something new we wanted to introduce to the city,” Thetsombandith said.
With the food truck set to return this summer, the establishment will usher in 40 years of tradition by celebrating evolution.
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