Orlando Thai with Dylan Eitharong.
It’s baccccck. One thing I miss about my old website is that I had an interview section where I talked to people I found inspiring and that were doing really cool things in the food industry and sometimes their families. I got the chance to sit down with Dylan Eitharong, Chef & Owner, of Bangrak Thai Street Kitchen. I’m a massive fan of his pop-ups and him as a person. The conversation was 2 and a half hours long, so I picked my favorite questions/answers. Enjoy!
Mary Mattern: Is it hard to eat vegan in Thailand?
Dylan Eitharong: Whenever I happen to find something that is plant based in Thailand I get super excited about that. It’s super tough. If you go in October, when I was there, there’s a vegetarian festival which is based off old Thai/Chinese customs. It’s pretty crazy. There’s these parades and people harm themselves on the street. They put knives through their face. It’s so gruesome, but its an offering like this is what we do to animals all year long so now we’re going to do it to us, or its a commitment to the gods, I’ve heard both. All the food is pretty much setain. Sometimes you’ll go to poorer parts of the country that just don’t eat meat out of necessity because they can’t afford it and its super flavorful. Otherwise, it’s tough to find.
MM: I remember the first time you guys posted you were serving something vegan I got so excited. It was your tofu dish. I had never had anything like it before. My husband describes it as cheese curds because it has the same consistency. Is chickpea tofu traditional in Thailand?
DE: That comes from Burma, Myanmar. It’s a big part of their diet. So in the north part of Thailand near the border it’s super available. So you can go to Thai/Myanmar restaurants and its a mix of Thai people using that as an ingredient. Only in the far north on the border towns like Chiang Lai and that area. I had it when I was in a little town called Mae Hong Son and was like this is delicious, I’ve never had anything like it. I asked them what it was and they kind of just ignored me. Then I bought this Myanmar cookbook on a whim and it was in there and I was able to figure it out after that.
MM: We’re you born here?
DE: I was born in Orlando. I was born down the street actually. I didn’t go to Thailand until I was about 20.
MM: Are your parents from there?
DE: My mom is from here. My dad is from Bangkok. I didn’t have a super Thai upbringing, except on the weekends. I didn’t speak it or anything and my dad was like “Oh son I don’t remember how to speak it”. He wasn’t ever going to go back and then when I hit 20 I was like ok I have to go.
MM: We’re you searching for anything in particular?
DE: When I was 18 I got really into cooking. Cooking Thai food specifically. Stuff that I had eaten up at the temple in Kissimmee then I got obsessed and researched a lot. Then restaurants like Pok Pok we’re opening up and I was like oh this is a thing. Then I was like ok I gotta go and told my dad he had to come with me. And he said no I haven’t been back in 40 years, but then I convinced him.
MM: Did your dad or mom cook a lot while you we’re growing up?
DE: My dad cooked a lot while I was growing up but now he doesn’t. He was a really good cook. All of his side of the family, him and his sisters would all cook traditional Thai food. Very different from what I’m used to eating here.
MM: Did that make you want to educate people in Orlando about traditional Thai food?
DE: It wasn’t a thing until around when I went the first time. It was just a hobby, then it only became a thing when I was about 21 or 22. It’s fun. It’s definitely been a journey.
MM: What was your first kitchen job?
DE: I worked at Whole Foods for about 5 years and Lexi (the co-owner of Swine & Sons) was working there at the time. She left Whole Foods and then opened Swine & Sons. I started doing pop-ups at my house and she said I could start doing them at Swine & Sons so I did that. After we did a couple she said “Do you want a job? You can do this and learn how to do things?” So I was like “Ok.”. That was a really good place for me to work because its a very small crew so everyone does everything so I did learn a lot.
MM: Did that experience make you want to open a brick and mortar or keep doing pop-ups?
DE: It makes me want to open a brick and mortar but it made me want to feel 100 percent about it. I want it to be like this is the location that I want.
MM: Do you think you’ll keep doing pop-ups for the foreseeable future?
DE: At least the next year. I was actually thinking about that today, like whens my limit. It’s been super exhausting. I feel like now that there are so many other pop-ups happening I feel like its just time to start thinking about moving on. That was my plan for last year though. Last year I was living in Thailand for 4 months. So, I quit Swine and I staged in Thailand at this restaurant and then I was like I’m gonna come back and buy a restaurant. Then I came back and I was like wait, what am I doing? Do I go back and work at Whole Foods? And then decided to start doing pop-ups at Redlight Redlight.
MM: How was staging? Did you love it?
DE: I had a love/hate relationship with it. It was just the place that I chose because I had been there before and the food was really good there. I knew all the front of house staff spoke English and it’s a very well known restaurant. And my Thai isn’t very good, its like a 5 out of 10 or maybe a 6. I showed up and no one in the back of house spoke English. Everyone was super good at what they did, but the things we ate for family meal we’re more interesting to me then the meals we were serving. We had 2 family meals a day for an 8 hour shift. Everything was so good. I had things I had never had before. There was this stir fry with Cardamom shoots and I had no idea that was a thing. So, I learned a lot, but I felt like the staff wasn’t getting the credit. It was definitely worth it though and I would do it again. When I go back to Thailand in a couple of weeks, I’m staying some extra time because theres this old shop house owned by this old couple my Aunt knows and she was like “If you want to work there you can.”. I love learning. I think thats the whole point of any of this is to learn so you can share it.
MM: Do you think you would want to stage with anyone in the United States?
DE: I’ve thought about it. There’s a few restaurants that I like. There’s a place called Little Serow in D.C. It’s a Thai tasting menu.
MM: What do you think the best vegan restaurants in Orlando are?
DE: I think places like Veggie Garden or like vegetarian Indian restaurants or places that are vegetarian as part of their culture do best at vegan/vegeterian food because that’s just what they eat by nature. Have you ever been to a Sikh temple?
MM: No, I haven’t.
DE: Any Sikh temple in the world, if you go for lunch time, its all vegan food because its part of their religion. I think there’s three here. It’s always super delicious. That’s what people eat that are of that religion. It’s not just curry sub tofu. Its these complete meals that people probably haven’t had before.
MM: Where do you see the Orlando food scene going?
DE: I’d say only this past year, business’ aren’t only clubs and “bad” restaurants opening downtown. Like Deeply Coffee and young people opening their own things is a result of Orlando’s newness. I think its cool. Everyone is super supportive of each other for the most part, especially in the food community.
MM: Yeah, at least from what I’ve experienced people have been really helpful in their knowledge of what to do and not to do. Of course, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past year and learned from them and I’ll pass those things down to future pop-uppers, but some of the knowledge given to me by Chef Jess of East End Market, Olivia of Fig and Flour, the list is so long.
DE: I feel like, and maybe its everywhere but especially here, everyone is like “Here’s what I did wrong so you don’t have to.” I feel like a lot of people don’t want to ever admit that they do anything wrong. Have you been to Pizza Bruno?
MM: Yeah, of course.
DE: Yeah, Bruno has been super great. He’s offered me tons of advice because he started as a pop-up too. And he has no reason to help me out other than just passing down that knowledge. And thats cool.