By Lee Noles
MONROE – Pranee Loffer’s childhood in Thailand is full of memories, but there is one that stands out more than the others. It took place at a stove in the family yard where Loffer, at 3 years old, sat and watched her mother meticulously prepare a popular Thai barbecue chicken dish.
The meal was more about necessity than enjoyment. As a single parent, Loffer’s mom took the food and stood in front of the family home every morning to sell to neighbors and people who passed by.
The childhood recollection and the passion her mother put into her cooking influenced Loffer to experiment in the Thai cuisine herself. And just like her mother, she is trying her hand in the restaurant business after helping move Thai Tamarind from Matthews to Monroe in April 2019. The business began as an Indian restaurant with Loffer as a partner. She took on cooking duties when it switched to Thai in July 2018 before moving to Monroe this past year.
“I felt like people were ready to eat Thai,” Loffer said. “I saw all the sushi places going up in Charlotte, and I thought Thai compliments that very well.”
Loffer’s involvement in the restaurant business began after her mom, Sutchada Heaton, moved the family to Australia when Loffer was 8 years old. Heaton had remarried and used the recipes she had learned to open a Thai restaurant in Sydney where Loffer started working when she was 12.
Owning a restaurant of her own didn’t appeal to Loffer, though, and she spent a year after high school backpacking in Great Britain before living in New Jersey and South Africa. She returned to Australia in 2003, when she joined a mission trip to Thailand as a translator. A year later, she went back to help after the 2004 tsunami devastated portions of her homeland. It was there she got reacquainted with Malachi Loffer, whom she met on the mission trip the previous year. The two were married in 2006 and moved to Union County three years later so she could pursue a career in photography.
“It was like, let’s hang around here, but we never left,” said Loffer, who is raising four children between 6 and 12 years old with Malachi.
Even while her photography business thrived, Loffer never forgot watching her mom start her restaurant and how she invited employees to their home each night to cook Thai dishes for a communal dinner.
“Food is such a huge part of every culture,” said Loffer, whose mother still operates a Thai restaurant in Australia. “But (Thai people) don’t like eating by ourselves. So, it was great being able to have people together to eat.”
Thai Tamarind displays the culture Loffer grew up knowing with colorful mats hanging from a side wall and tin roofing covering the area where customers order. Elephants that Loffer painted are on another wall with a purposeful distinct feature.
“Their trunks are up,” Loffer said. “They always have to be up because that brings good luck, and luck in Thailand is very important.”
The food represents a street-style authenticity Loffer not only learned from her mother, but also her aunt, Wasana Allen, who provided help in creating the dishes offered at the restaurant. Loffer said Thai cooking pulls from many different countries that used trade routes through Thailand for hundreds of years. The curry and spices are from India, and the stir fry has its roots in China.
Thai and Laos rely heavily on fermentation as well with pork and chicken being a major part of its dishes. Loffer gets authentic ingredients by traveling to Asian markets in Charlotte to buy what she needs.
“I want to make the stuff that my mom would eat,” Loffer said. “I would ask myself is it something she would like. Because she is pretty hardcore.”
Want to go?
Thai Tamarind is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. The restaurant is located at 109 S. Main St, Monroe.