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Eat & Drink » Wine

Royale Without Cheese

Fragrant flavors and killer karma abound in an old Pizza Hut.

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From the parking lot on Murray-Holladay Road, it’s not hard to see that Pawit’s Royale Thai Cuisine restaurant was once home to a Pizza Hut. But, on the inside, there’s no trace of the former pizzeria nor of the Chinese restaurant that more recently occupied the space of Ponpawit (aka “Pawit”) Numnuan’s new restaurant. Numnuan is proud of his elegant eatery, having himself (along with his wife and staff) done most of the hard work it took to transform the space into one of the more serene, beautiful dining spots in town.

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“It was icky. There was grease and trash and dirt everywhere,” says Numnuan of the restaurant he and his wife put their savings into. “It took months to clean up and make lovely!” He’s especially proud of the restaurant’s restrooms, which are indeed memorable. Draped in silk with flower petals strewn about the floor, a water closet at Royale Thai looks like a cross between a well-heeled harem and a comfy spot to light up an opium pipe. The overall sensation: You’re not in Holladay anymore.

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You might know Numnuan’s name from Thai Garden, where he worked before opening his namesake restaurant. He’s established quite a loyal following at his new restaurant, bathing diners in his unique version of “service with a smile.” A naturally warm and outgoing person to begin with, Numnuan credits his tenure at the five-star Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok for teaching him the nuts and bolts of five-star service, which he proffers to each and every one of his customers. The restaurant is aptly named, since royally is how visitors to Pawit’s are treated. This, in part, explains the large number of repeat and regular customers in a restaurant that has only been open since midsummer.

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But as lovely the setting and as friendly the service, Royale Thai is first and foremost about the food, which spans Thailand’s regions. Pad prik khing ($11.95) is a stir-fry dish from central Thailand where beef, chicken, pork or tofu is stir-fried and served in a medium-spiced red curry with crunchy bamboo shoots, Thai green beans, green and red bell pepper slices and fragrant kaffir lime leaves. From northern Thailand, there’s an unusual Thai-style omelet called kai jeaw made with scallions, yellow onion, cilantro, black pepper and tomato ($10.95). And then there’s pad puck ($10.95), a stir-fry dish popular throughout Thailand of cabbage, onion, broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, carrots and a choice of meat, seafood or tofu.

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But along with the traditional Thai curries, stir-fries, noodle and rice dishes'many of which are outstanding'I suggest following Pawit’s own recommendation and trying some of the specialty dishes. The boneless deep-fried duck ($14.95) in Pawit’s sweet honey-ginger sauce is a thing of beauty. And salmon lovers will appreciate Pawit’s incorporation of salmon into his Thai menu, particularly the larb salmon ($14.95), which is steamed salmon garnished with a Thai salad of sliced scallions, red onion, hot Thai chilies, lime juice and milled rice.

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Although many of the dishes at Pawit’s Royale Thai Cuisine include a choice of meat, chicken or seafood (usually prawns), the restaurant is still nirvana for vegetarians, since most dishes can be made with tofu or no protein at all. Numnuan’s green papaya salad ($8.95) could turn me into a vegetarian: Green papaya is julienned and seasoned with fresh lime juice, garlic and Thai chilies, and served with Thai green beans, chopped peanuts and tomatoes. Along with that lovely salad, you might want to enjoy a bowl ($2.95) of tom kha with tofu: It’s an intricate coconut soup incorporating cabbage, mushrooms, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal and cilantro'an incredibly fragrant affair.

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Like so many immigrant restaurateurs in America, Numnuan sends a portion of his earnings back home to help support his family in Thailand, in addition to a school in his village. In an e-mail to me, Numnuan wrote, “Pawit’s Royale Thai Cuisine is my hope and my future to support more students and some of the poor people in Thailand and all the people who need help in that situation.” He considers himself very fortunate: “When I worked at the five-star hotel in Bangkok, a gentleman from Colorado came to know me. He sponsored me to come to the United States and to get my green card,” says Numnuan. “I have been very lucky to meet such a man.” Many people I know feel the same about Ponpawit Numnuan: He’s a very generous, loving fellow who radiates good will and kindness'not the sort of thing I often write about restaurateurs.

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In a world with so much deception, violence, mistrust, hatred and bigotry, a place like Pawit’s serves as a respite from the storm of sorts. Not that I expect an evening in a restaurant to cure the world’s ills, but a restaurant like Royale Thai'which seems to channel Numnuan’s own positive energy and blanket each table with it'at least for an evening can serve as a type of temporary balm. It’s a place where the karma, along with the food, is killer.