Surrounded by a barrier of rocky cliffs and lush jungle, Rai Lay is one of Thailand's most beautiful beaches. Thai native Jai Budsri pays homage to the exotic destination with Rai Lay Thai, a new concept restaurant that brings authentic Thai street food to South End.
Rai Lay is Budsri's second foray into bringing Thai cuisine to the Charlotte palate; she opened her first restaurant, Deejai, on Providence Road in 2009. While Deejai's traditional approach and a menu that's full of Thai-American staples helped make the Elizabeth sit-down a neighborhood favorite, Budsri found herself wanting to experiment beyond the basics and introduce a menu of lesser known and more authentic fare.
"The main focus is Thai street food," says Rai Lay manager Emily Hesse. "Thai food is really popular around here and there are some great Thai spots, but Jai wanted to introduce a different type of food that people weren't as familiar with."
Hesse has been part of Budsri's operation for years. After graduating from Johnson & Wales, she kicked off her career in restaurant management at Deejai.
"That was actually my first introduction to Thai food," she says. "I came in hating spicy food, being scared of it, then I started eating more of it and now it's one of my favorite cuisines."
Keeping her own introduction to Thai food in mind, Hesse knows that some diners may have a bit of a learning curve when they come to Rai Lay hoping to find the usual Americanized Thai dishes that they're accustomed to.
"A lot of people come in here wanting the curry dishes or noodle dishes," Hesse says, explaining that the staff is always ready to help newbies navigate the menu.
"They have those dishes at Deejai, but here the focus is on street food. So I'll tell them, 'We don't have that, but we do have this you can try instead,'" she says. "I always ask people, 'Do you want noodles? Do you want broth? None of the above? Sweet? Spicy?' I always try to gauge what you're craving at the moment and can direct you from there," she explains as she walks me through the menu.
"The Kao Soy is a staple and is one of our most popular dishes. It's our only semi-curry. We've got yellow curry with noodles on the bottom and fried noodles on top. Palo is one of my favorites. It's braised pork and it's so tender. There's an egg in it, and a sweet broth."
For diners that are ready to step outside of the box entirely, Rai Lay offers even more exotic and creative interpretations of traditional Thai street fare.
"We do Thai chicken wings and Thai beef jerky," Hesse says, listing off some of the menu's more adventurous selections. "Our oyster pancakes are really popular. People can't really picture what that will look like. It's literally a crêpe-like pancake with oyster in it, and a sauce on the side that you mix together."
Though the menu focuses on breaking the mold, Rai Lay does offer a few cop-outs for diners that crave more familiar flavors.
"The basil chicken and Pad Thai are delicious and still really flavorful, if people are really unsure of everything else," Hesse says. "We offer those dishes to be more traditional."
So what kind of reception has the menu received?
"It goes both ways," Hesse says. "There's people who come in and are upset we don't have a particular dish. But we've also had people say, 'Hey, I was just in Thailand, and this is really authentic.'"
Authenticity took top priority when Budsri and her staff worked on putting together Rai Lay's menu.
"It took a lot of time to come up with the dishes," Hesse says of the process. "A lot of it was based on personal experience with dishes they liked in Thailand. It was a lot of collaboration, a lot of trial and error. They know firsthand how dishes are supposed to taste and how they should be served."
That effort to be authentic doesn't end when the food leaves the kitchen; true to Thai style, spice level is 'DIY style' at Rai Lay. Rather than ask diners how spicy they want a dish, Rai Lay brings a tray of spices to the table.
"We wanted to give people creative control to spice how they want," Hesse explains. "That's how it is on the streets in Thailand — they don't ask, 'Do you want spice level three?' They just have the spices right there. So we bring the spice to the table and you can make it spicy yourself."
Those efforts to bring her hometown's flavor to South End have paid off for Budsri; though Rai Lay has only been open a month, the dining space is booming at lunch time.
Hesse isn't surprised by Budsri's success: "She works her butt off running back and forth between the two restaurants. She's that business owner who is always there and never has a day off. She'll be back here in the kitchen actually cooking," says Hesse. "I'm inspired and in awe of her. I think it's really empowering that there's a woman who owns two restaurants and has a family at the same time."
Rai Lay's future looks bright in South End, and Hesse is confident that they'll continue to convert fans of standard Thai takeout.
"We want people to come in and try out the food," she says. "It might not be something you've seen before or are used to, but try it out."