When you think of successful family franchises in Northern New Mexico, you typically think of El Parasol, perhaps, or Posa’s — it makes sense for families that make top-notch tamales or red chile to proliferate across the region. But J&N Thai Bistro, Santa Fe’s newest Thai restaurant, is another example of one family putting its mark on the food you love — but with an entirely different kind of chile.
The J&N of J&N are married couple Joe Lovato and Ratchanida Chaikew-Lovato (she goes by Nam). Lovato is from Albuquerque; Nam, the chef, is from Thailand.
“I grew up in the kitchens back in Thailand,” Nam says. “My parents had a small restaurant, just a tiny one in front of the house. That’s where I learned everything since I was little. I started from the bottom, cutting vegetables.”
Nam’s family is still in the restaurant business — but now in Northern New Mexico. Her parents, who moved to the U.S. in 2000, own Teriyaki Queen & Thai Cuisine in Albuquerque, and her aunt and uncle own Thai Cuisine 2, also in Albuquerque. Lovato and Nam met in 2008, married, had a kid or three (four, actually) and opened Thailand Thai Cuisine in Los Alamos in 2015.
J&N Thai Bistro is their second endeavor to put the family stamp on the face of Thai curries across the region (the Los Alamos restaurant is thriving). Lovato describes the restaurants as a kind of “family franchise.” The move into Santa Fe was made easier by the relatively turn-key situation the couple found in the old Five Star Burger space at the DeVargas Center mall, across the street from Jinja. The massive cutout stars are still built into the wall, though the rest of the space is now verdant with potted bamboo.
Like most Thai places, you can get your food mild, medium, hot or “Thai hot,” a designation that you order at your own risk. The heat in Thai food comes from the bird’s eye chile, a tiny red chile named for its resemblance to a bird’s beak, and ubiquitous in Thai food. It is at least twice as spicy as the New Mexico Anaheim chile (which goes up to about 70,000 Scoville heat units versus the 100,000 to 200,000 Scoville unit range for bird’s eye chiles), and even if you’re used to your dry-season green chile stew, exercise caution with Thai food.
The menu at J&N is comprehensive (prices range from $12 to $17) and lists favorites familiar to fans of Thai food, like pad thai (thin stir-fried rice noodles in a sweet-tangy sauce), pad see ew (wide rice noodles with Chinese broccoli and garlic), and pad kee mow (drunken noodles made with basil and bell peppers). Soup offerings include tangy tom yam (hot and sour soup in a clear, spiced broth) and kuaitiao yen tao fo, a vegetable broth soup that includes a house special “pink sauce,” a spicy-tangy-sweet condiment the ingredients of which Nam would not divulge.
“I would say that pink sauce is only made in my hometown,” she says. “It’s a secret sauce.”
Thailand sits in the middle of Southeast Asia, and its distinctive cuisine absorbed and combined the flavors of Burma, Vietnam and Malaysia, the latter two most obvious in the long list of very different curry varieties, almost always made, in Thai food, with coconut milk. The menu at J&N Thai Bistro features a full choose-your-own adventure of curries, available with tofu, chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or mixed seafood.
Massaman curry, for example, is usually the mildest curry on a Thai menu. Massaman is a hearty red (or sometimes yellow) curry containing potatoes and peanuts, with Indian and Malay influences. The spices within, like cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg, are not typically Thai. Pa Nang curry is a red curry made with galangal, lemongrass and coriander, a rich dish that often includes shrimp paste and coconut cream in curry paste. Pineapple curry includes pineapple, fish sauce and chiles for a sweet-hot umami flavor profile that is best with shrimp. Khao soi is a yellow, northern Thai noodle soup with a Burmese flavor profile (the paste usually includes lots of aromatic roots like ginger, turmeric and coriander).
And green curry, made with coconut milk, gets its color from Thailand’s own “green chiles” (not the kind grown in Hatch), an underripe stage of the bird’s eye chili that can often be hotter than the ripened red variety, and is finished off with sweet Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves.
J&N Thai Bistro, while still casual, is a slightly more high-end joint than the rest of the Thai Cuisine restaurants. It had a soft opening just over a month ago, so its beer and wine license is still in the works.
“For this location, people are more laid back and have more time to spend,” Lovato says. “In Albuquerque, people are always in a rush. Here there’s a lot of tourists, and people have more time to sit and dine.”
If you go
What: J&N Thai Bistro
When: Open 11 a.m. every day
Where: 604 N. Guadalupe St. (DeVargas Center mall parking lot)
More information: Call 505-982-9417 or visit www.facebook.com/J-N-Thai- Bistro-152577255538079/