Let’s get something straight. The Panoy Restaurant at 442 Colfax Ave. in Grass Valley is not a Thai restaurant.
It’s a Lao restaurant.
“There is a difference,” asserted chef Touty [TOO-tee] Sanith, who co-owns the tastefully decorated ethnic eatery with her daughter, Panoy.
There used to be a Panoy Thai restaurant, but it closed. Touty Sanith and her daughter bought the business from Sanith’s father. Three years ago, they opened for business with a Lao – not Thai – menu under the name Panoy Bistro, Sanith said.
Yes, the restaurants were both named after daughter Panoy, which means “little fish” in the Lao language.
A two-woman enterprise
Panoy Bistro is open six days a week.
Monday through Friday, the restaurant is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. On Saturdays, it is only open for dinner.
Remarkably, the restaurant has no employees. The two women do it all themselves.
“Panoy’s the front, I’m the back,” Sanith said.
In restaurant industry parlance, the “front of the house” is the dining area, and “the back of the house” is the kitchen. Thus, Panoy greets and serves customers while her mother pursues culinary excellence in the back.
Born in Laos (which borders Thailand), Sanith came to the United States more than 30 years ago. Nevertheless, she still retains a charming accent and her lifelong love of Lao cuisine.
“I love to cook. I put love into my dishes,” Sanith said. “I enjoy it when I see customers enjoy food.”
She also said she’s returned to Laos several times to take cooking classes. “There’s always something new to learn.”
Fresh and spicy
The signature dish of Panoy Bistro is the Mekong Blossom, named after the Mekong River that runs through the heart of Laos. This dish is a grilled fillet of tilapia topped with Loa oregano and tamarind curry. Tilapia is a farm-raised fish from Laos.
At $18, it is the most expensive item on the menu. Most servings range from $8 to $15.
Many of the items on the extensive menu have colorful names, such as Crying Tiger Noodles, Dragon Curry, Ping and P.S. I Love You.
Although she does prepare mild dishes, Sanith stressed that what distinguishes her cooking is that it is “very fresh and spicy.”
“We cook everything fresh, and we use lots of herbs,” said Sanith.
She brings many of the ingredients from her own organic garden.
The aging sign out front and the modest building set far back from the road belie the quiet elegance of the restaurant once you enter the bistro side.
Panoy Bistro shares the building and a common entrance with the 174 Café, a beer and wine bar. The style of the two businesses is radically different. The 174 Café features colorful handprints on the wall; the bistro is decorated in shades of green with Lao art and flowers.
Although Sanith plans to one day have a full space of her own, the bistro and the café now have a mutually beneficial relationship. Panoy Bistro doesn’t have an alcohol license, but guests can order drinks from the bar to have with their lunch or dinner. Likewise, bar patrons can order food from the restaurant.
Tradition, technology and hospitality
While the cuisine is strictly traditional, the bistro features modern technology. It has a website, www.panoybistro.com, that allows you view the entire menu and to order online for takeout or in advance of your arrival for dining in.
The website also offers a glimpse into the culture and cuisine of Laos and explains the proper distinction between Lao and Laos. For instance, “Lao is to German as Laos is to Germany.”
In other words, you wouldn’t go into a Germany restaurant any more than you go into a Laos restaurant. As for “Laotian,” it’s not even in their vocabulary.
Panoy deferred to her mother during conversations about business.
“I let my mom do the talking. It’s always the tradition to let the mom talk,” she said respectfully.
Nevertheless, Panoy is happy to talk about customer relations.
“I like to treat the customers as friends,” she said. She knows many regulars by name.
“Sometimes, we sing,” she laughed, citing songs like “Pina Colada” and “Benny and the Jets.”
“I am proud to be Lao,” Sanith said.
“I’m proud of my cuisine, proud of my country — and proud of my daughters.”
In addition to Panoy, Sanith’s younger daughter Natasha is studying medicine at UC San Francisco.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org