When Pam Mongkolpla moved to Bozeman from Bangkok to attend high school, she didnt imagine shed be in the same town, running two Thai restaurants, 16 years later. In 1997, Mongkolpla followed her brother to Mount Ellis Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding high school just east of Bozeman at the foot of the Gallatin Mountains. After high school, Mongkolpla studied architecture at Montana State University.
While she didnt have any formal cooking experience, Mongkolpla quickly realized that if she wanted to eat the food she grew up with, shed have to cook it herself.
At the time, there wasnt an authentic Thai restaurant in town, Mongkolpla recalled. And I really wanted to open a Thai place.
After graduating from MSU, Mongkolpla moved away and practiced architecture for five years. Something drew her back to Montana.
People in Bozeman know Thailand and loved the food, she said.
She kept meeting people who had traveled to Thailand or had other connections with her home country. She knew there was a desire for good Thai cuisine.
About three and a half years ago, she opened Lemongrass Thai, just south of the MSU campus. She had been looking for a place downtown, but nothing was available, so she moved into a new building where she could design the interior herself.
Mongkolpla imported art, dishware, tables and ingredients from Thailand to give Lemongrass a very real Thai vibe. Bright paintings of elephants and mountains adorn the walls, along with wooden cutouts of elaborate scenes. A tree grows in a wooden box in the middle of the restaurant, reaching toward the extra-high ceilings, lending an outdoor air to the indoor space.
Tables are topped with glass tiles in blues, greens and aquamarines. In all, a feeling of serenity and liveliness fills the restaurant.
The most popular item on the menu is pad thai, a perennial favorite made of Thai noodles pan fried with tofu, egg, bean sprouts and scallions, and topped with peanuts and chicken or tofu.
Mongkolpla often recommends the papaya salad, made with shredded green papayas, rather than the more familiar ripe fruit. The papaya is tossed with shredded carrots, tomatoes, green beans, crushed peanuts and a spicy chili lime sauce for a zesty, spicy and refreshing appetizer.
The menu also includes noodle dishes, such as Pams Pad Khee Mao, Pad See Iw and Pad Woon Sen. Four kinds of curry, rice dishes, stir fry and several appetizers round out the menu.
In addition to restaurant dining, Lemongrass Thai also offers take-out and catering. Lemongrass has a wine list, and after a few months of requests, Mongkolpla added a vegan menu.
When Mongkolpla imagined opening a Thai restaurant, she pictured the place a little smaller than Lemongrass Thai ended up being. Last fall, the space she had imagined opened up on Main Street in downtown Bozeman. Mongkolpla snagged it and opened her second Thai restaurant, Rice.
Mongkolplas mom came over from Thailand to help her get Rice going and manages the restaurant when Mongkolpla cant be there.
Rice has more appetizers and more variety, according to Mongkolpla, but like Lemongrass Thai, its authentic Thai food no Japanese, Chinese or Asian flair. It offers a cozy dining experience, fried rice and noodles, curry and seven soups.
This story first appeared in the Great Falls Tribune.