IT WAS THE gentle croaking of a frog that called us all to attention, and looking back, it was the first sign that this dinner was to be unlike any other I’d ever had. Richard Glasgow, the lawyer cum chef and owner of kBird, the literal hidden gem of a Thai restaurant masquerading as a home in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood, was stroking the back of a güiro, a small, hand-carved wooden frog. With each stroke of the small stick across the carving’s ribbed back, a lifelike croak would fill the air. The room fell silent, and all heads turned toward him.
He greeted the room in English and Thai, welcoming us to his khantoke, the traditional ceremonial dinner common in northern Thailand. He pointed across the room, and the eyes of the 30-odd diners followed his finger. On the wall hung a small woven table, the table from which the dinner took its name. Richard likened it to an immobile lazy Susan, a central pedestal from which all of the dishes of the meal were served and shared.
After a too-brief introduction and mile-a-minute rundown of the foods we were about to eat, Richard retreated to the kitchen, and his staff began the worker-bee ballet of bringing out the dishes.
Plates appeared at the table almost instantaneously. First, a woven basket of kBird’s familiar sticky rice; then only minutes behind it, six more plates arrived, each mounded over with food—meats smelling of wild spices, vegetables foreign and familiar. Each bowl a different shade of red or brown, each one wafting something new into the atmosphere. Within minutes, the dining room in the heart of Hillcrest was transformed, transported halfway round the world to the bustling morning markets of Thailand.
To the uninitiated, the dishes, as diverse as roasted eggplant salad and a rich and savory pork curry, might seem disjointed, a confusing array of flavors and foods. With no written menu, diners were forced to reach out, across the table and to other tables, asking their fellow diners to help them fill in the blanks. And while a table full of unfamiliar foods may seem daunting, Richard’s reason for hosting it, as I would later learn, is exactly that: to challenge guests not only on what they think they know about Thai food but on the concept of what a meal can be.
THERE ARE only a few diners left by the time I make my way back to kBird. It’s near the end of the Thursday-night dinner service, and I take a seat at the counter that functions as the restaurant’s bar (though dinner is strictly BYOB). Even as dinner service is winding down, Richard and his small team of sous chefs are still bent over their woks and grills, a bevy of last-minute take-out orders all that stands between them and the end of the night.
It’s an interesting scene, peering over the bar into the kitchen. The entire restaurant is small and eclectic, an effect magnified in the anything-goes styling of the kitchen. The walls are hung with Thai artifacts, with years worth of stickers, photos and postcards. This isn’t the bright and polished kitchen of a high-end restaurant. No, this is a kitchen that is lived in, loved in, made whole by those who use it.
Richard is frying slices of pumpkin, tossing each sliver in batter, then sliding them into the fryer. “It’s kind of like a tempura batter, but with red curry paste,” Richard calls to me over his shoulder. The fries emerge a golden red. They’re stuck together, jutting out at odd angles, looking like a Calder mobile. Richard dumps them into waiting to-go boxes.
“You know,” Richard says, making his way to where I’ve been sitting, “there’s a lot of similarities between what we eat here [in the southeastern United States] and what they eat in Northern Thailand.” It’s a connection I hadn’t made at the dinner, but he’s right. Linked sausages, pork rinds, fried chicken. Each of them, to me at least, a staple of Southern food, but for someone from Thailand, a staple of the north. To hear Richard explain it, the differences between the regional cuisines of Thailand are as simple and as evident as those in the United States, as different as Southern grits is to hatch chiles in New Mexico, or New England clam chowder. And while kBird’s longstanding lunch menu draws influence from Thai cuisine as a whole, the khantoke dinners drill down into the country’s north. “It’s the country folks,” Richard tells me. “They talk slower; they have a drawl.”
Again, mirroring the food that Arkansans are more familiar with, the food of northern Thailand is a cuisine born of poverty. Whereas Southern staples arose from the recipes of newly freed slaves forced to make do on what they could farm, northern Thai cuisine reflects the necessity to use every part of any ingredient. For each khantoke, Richard uses an entire pig, from its skin in the pork rinds, its blood in a curry, its intestines for sausage. He reminds me that Thailand wasn’t always the tourist mecca it is today, and even now, northern Thailand’s rolling green mountains see far fewer visitors than the white-sand beaches of the country’s southern half. “Financially, [the people of northern Thailand] just have to use every bit of everything they have.”
Richard’s fascination with this regional cuisine began with a trip to the area in 2002, and the hook was instantaneous. He’s since been back over 10 times and closes kBird for a month each year while he makes his annual pilgrimage. For Richard, kBird isn’t just about re-creating the foods of another culture—he’s seeking to honor it, give it the spotlight it deserves. There are no electric appliances in the restaurant. All of his curry pastes and sauces are made by hand. “I didn’t think the food was being done justice. I’ve just been trying to be a good ambassador.”
The dinner I attended was the second of these now weekly khantoke dinners. The dinners had been rare treats in the past, often with tickets selling out in a matter of hours. Richard seems to demure when he admits that he thought his past khantokes had gotten more “hype” than he wanted, leading him to now offer them weekly. More dinners allow for more people to finally understand this little corner of the world.
Throughout the khantoke, as I ate my way through the almost unending list of foods, I, like so many of the diners around me, found myself second-guessing what I thought I knew about Thai food. The flavors Richard displays throughout his dinners are collectively unexpected, even for his regular diners. The cuisine, owing to northern Thailand’s proximity to the Silk Road, borrows much from the traditional flavors of India, much more so than the coconut-milk-laden dishes popular in the country’s south. Each dish, be it fermented sausage or a curry of steamed catfish served in banana leaves, subverts the expected, offering up instead a focused and nuanced array of spices and flavors, wholly unlike anything else in Little Rock, or even in Arkansas. More than anything, trying each dish, one after another, brought to mind another traditional meal: the Southern potluck—a cavalcade of flavors, each spoonful lending insight into a people and a way of life.
Before I left Richard and his crew to clean up for the night, I asked him a question that I had been wondering all week since the khantoke: Why? Why Thai food, and why northern Thai food specifically? What was I, as an eater, supposed to take away from all of this? “We all share a common thread, and if you can’t find it in food …” His voice trailed off. “[I hope] people will see that.”