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Alabama News Center: Ruan Thai downtown is a new reason to savor Greensboro

Ed. Note: We republish this piece with the permission of Alabama News Center. It features Greensboro’s newly-opened Ruan Thai, as well as highlighting some of the town’s other attractions.

Some of the best and most beautiful Thai food in Alabama (perhaps in the Southeast) is in a small restaurant in tiny Greensboro. Ruan Thai, which means “Thai House,” is new, but it has a decades-long history.

It’s also a reason for a daytrip to the Black Belt part of our state.

For some 30 years, Sasiwan Yeager, known to most as Alp (a nickname she’s had since childhood), owned a Thai restaurant on the Tuscaloosa Strip that was beloved by University of Alabama students, locals and visitors. While the restaurant would become her life’s work, Alp initially came to the United States to earn her MBA. She and some friends (one with a Ph.D. in nutrition) started a restaurant in Tuscaloosa so they could enjoy the dishes and flavors they grew up eating. “We gathered the money. We made everything ourselves,” Alp says. “At that time, Tuscaloosa was a small town. … But we had a lot of customers and long lines. It was really incredible. We had a lot of success for the first Thai restaurant there.”

That was in 1991. They called it Siam House.

In Alabama, Alp had found a new home. She originally went to California, where she had a childhood friend, but that didn’t feel quite right. “When I went to Tuscaloosa, everything was so beautiful,” she says. “They have the big trees covering University Boulevard. … And the people were so nice and conservative … like in my country, people talk to each other. I really loved Tuscaloosa so much.”

Alp met her husband, Van, because of lemongrass. He had some growing in his garden; she needed it for the restaurant. So, he gave some to her. “I met her over her food,” Van says. “Her food is outstanding, and she is beautiful. I tried to take her out, but repeatedly she would not go out with me.” The two became friends but nothing more until he proved himself. Van noticed that Alp fed the Thai students from the University every night after her restaurant closed. So, one evening he brought over “a bucketful of barbecued chicken” to contribute to the family meal and, in doing so, showed Alp his best true intentions.

When Alp’s restaurant closed during the pandemic, the couple moved to Greensboro, which is about 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa down Highway 69 in Hale County. Van grew up in the tiny town, and the couple talked about relaxing into retirement.

That didn’t last long.

Alp considered writing a cookbook. Some people approached her about teaching cooking classes. But she missed her restaurant where she had cultivated generations of customers. “I have really about 30 years of customers,” Alp says. People who studied at Alabama would come back from as far away as California and visit her when they were here. “I really feel good about that.”

Also, she simply likes to be busy. “I do everything in the restaurant,” Alp says. “I cook, come and greet the customers, wipe the tables when they go out. But I love to cook.”

So, when Alp proposed another restaurant, Van, who is a restoration carpenter, built one for her right on Main Street. It’s a gem of a place with antique furnishings salvaged from two nearby former businesses.

He painted one wall a rich blue and hung a newly framed, shimmering, favorite piece of artwork from Alp’s former restaurant in Tuscaloosa. The couple accented the opposite wall of plaster fragments over brick with the same jewel tone. The texture is beautiful and grounds this place in this reclaimed space. Van built Alp a sushi bar, and she hopes to get back to that soon. He also built a traditional Thai entry gate to a comfortable, shady patio out back near his grill. Photos of Thailand, relics, tiny origami animals, beautiful linens on the tables and traditional artwork from that country speak to Alp’s family history and the vibrant flavors from her kitchen.

In March, four Buddhist monks came over from Atlanta for a traditional blessing ceremony. It’s an old tradition, Alp explains, and one that is necessary before beginning any new business venture. Then Alp and Van opened Ruan Thai this past summer.

Alp is a native of Bangkok. Her recipes are her own, honed from a lifetime of kitchen experience and a deep love and understanding of Thai food. She cooks with Thai peppers and Thai basil, eggplant, lemongrass, chives and other herbs she grows herself. “I’m proud to be a Thai cook,” Alp says. She not only shares her food, but she shares the knowledge of it — the ingredients in the dishes, how they are prepared, the history of the food she loves. “The Thai community really helps each other,” she says. “That’s why I’m proud to be Thai and to open a Thai restaurant here.”

Alp says she draws inspiration from the entire country; it’s something she learned from her father, who relished the vast variety of foods from different regions that make up Thai cuisine. So, on her menu you’ll find the grilled meats, fresh vegetables, aromatic herbs and red curries of the north and northeast; her marinated papaya salad and sticky rice pay homage to the east. There are green curries, drunken noodles and hot and sour soups of the central plains, and spicy seafood dishes, zesty flavors of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, and massaman stewed curries influenced by the south.

One of the restaurant’s signature dishes (and a singular reason to make a trip) is Khao Soi (available only as the Saturday special). This is a dish from the north, Alp explains, and “the flavors are similar to those found in neighboring Burma” (Myanmar). It’s a rich, complex, coconut curry noodle dish with grilled chicken, fresh lettuce, red onions, cilantro and lemon.

You’ll want to free up a Saturday soon.

Everything here is made from scratch with the help of Alp’s longtime cook, Thepnarin Rinsom (known as Aui). The delightfully crisp spring rolls are made in house and served with a homemade plum sauce and cucumber salad. You’ll also find Pla Pad Karee with grilled salmon, celery, onions and bell pepper in a yellow curry broth; emerald noodles (formerly 14B to Alp’s devoted fans) made with spinach noodles and grilled, marinated pork; Tom Yum Gai (hot and sour chicken soup); pineapple fried rice; and a daily curry (chef’s choice) with bright, fresh vegetables; herbs from her garden; and various proteins like scallops and shrimp, beef or pork.

Alp says she asks new customers if they know about Thai food because hers is authentic. She also is happy to customize her food. Each dish, Alp says, “can be prepared mild, medium, hot or Thai hot. If they are vegetarian or gluten free, we can do that. Just tell the waitress.”

Of course, there’s Pad Thai, a popular street food and a national dish of Thailand, and it’s delicious here. But Alp has always bloomed where she’s planted, so she created a special green sauce, which she calls “Greensboro sauce,” with cilantro and garlic. She does a fantastic job with catfish, which is raised in this area. The mild fish lends itself nicely to a Thai dish when she fries it up crisp and serves it with a creamy yellow curry, carrots, bell pepper, basil and the thinnest slivers of kaffir lime leaves. She even puts green tomatoes (fresh from her garden and certainly a favorite Southern thing) in a pork stir fry with green curry paste and calls it “The Green.”

Van works the front of the house at Ruan Thai. It’s a new role for him, but one he happily does because it supports Alp. “I’m getting better,” he says. “Well, at least, you know, I’ve got the graciousness to ask forgiveness when I mess up.” He also grills the chicken that Alp marinates in Thai spices (the result is similar to a street food found in Bangkok). He does ribs, too. And at Alp’s urging, he makes a delicious, creamy coconut ice cream.

All of that is enough to make Ruan Thai a destination restaurant. But then you have Greensboro itself, which is amazingly diverse, interesting and innovative. On a recent weekday, Alp and Van invited some of their regular customers to lunch, and it was an impressive crowd.

Dr. John Dorsey was at one table. He’s the founder and executive director of Project Horseshoe Farm, which, since 2007, has focused on better community health through individualized volunteer services for the area’s most vulnerable populations. The award-winning organization offers a grant-supported, one-year Community Health Service Leadership Fellowship geared to top recent college graduates from across the country. The fellowships, as well as undergraduate internships, put young “citizen service leaders” in volunteer positions to help seniors, adults living with mental illness and children in afterschool programs.

Sarah Cole was at another table. Cole, a chef, goodfood advocate and a Black Belt native, is the owner of Abadir’s, a purpose-driven eatery celebrating her half- Egyptian, half-Southern heritage. Cole is establishing a collaborative “good food space” in downtown Greensboro where Abadir’s will offer more regular hours for its community while creating engaging and educational food-based programs with regional and national chefs and educators that will bring more attention to Greensboro. Cole also runs Black Belt Food Project, a nonprofit focused on food access and food education.

In addition to Ruan Thai and Cole’s eatery, there’s a longtime favorite café down the street called M&M Mustang Oil where the local catfish farmers go to eat fried catfish. The Stable, a Southern coffee pub, restaurant and bar — with all-day breakfast; smoothies; fresh salads, sandwiches and wraps; pizza and homemade pies — is right next to Ruan Thai. Greensboro native Kate Cothran, who was part of the lunch crowd at Ruan Thai, also pointed out the nearby “Japanese restaurant (Sakura Hibachi Sushi) and the Mexican place out on the bypass,” saying Greensboro is becoming known for international as well as fresh local foods.

Here’s another reason to make a daytrip to Greensboro: Safe House Black History Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the rich culture and history of the rural Black Belt South. On March 21, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought refuge from the Ku Klux Klan inside a small, shotgun-style home in the depot neighborhood of Greensboro (this was just two weeks before his assassination in Memphis).

Theresa Burroughs, a close friend of the King family and an active participant in the civil rights movement, turned this small house into the Safe House Black History Museum to document the local struggle for equality. The museum contains relics from slavery through the civil rights movement including unpublished photos of the Greensboro marches, Bloody Sunday in Selma and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.