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The City Journals

Dee Garden Thai Kitchen and Nepali Chulo: Two restaurants approaching their one-year anniversaries in a strange climate

Sep 09, 2020 04:05PM ● By Mariden Williams

In May, Dee Garden Thai Kitchen donated 100 meals to Salt Lake County Department of Infectious Disease workers. (Dee Garden Thai Kitchen)

By Mariden Williams | m.will[email protected]

Starting a new restaurant is never an easy feat, but it becomes even harder when just a few months after first opening your doors, you are asked to close them for the sake of public health.

Dee Garden Thai Kitchen, located at 7098 South Redwood Road, opened on Dec. 20, 2019, meaning they were only open for around three months before lockdown orders took effect. So, unlike a lot of other local restaurants, they haven’t experienced a decline in revenue so much as a slower increase in customer base than new restaurants can generally expect.

"We were still building our customer pool when the pandemic hit us, since the restaurant was opened pretty recently at that time,” said Manager Kanlayanee Phothiworn, who is the daughter of the chefs. “But our customers were still very nice in supporting the small businesses in the community.” 

Though their own business was struggling during this time, the Phothiworn family still found a way to give back to the community: on May 6–7, they held a fundraiser where 50% of their proceeds went toward feeding front-line healthcare workers. They raised enough money that they were able to donate 100 meals.

“We really wanted to contribute and give back, since we also knew friends and families who were working in the healthcare system,” said Kanlayanee. “I think it was a successful event. Many customers saw the news and came on those two days especially to support the cause.”

During the lockdown, most customers ordered exclusively through online delivery services, but they are gradually seeing an increase in in-person dining, which makes them happy. The interior of the restaurant is bright and cheery, and every other table is marked off with blue masking tape to encourage social distancing. 

 “We love seeing customers eating at the restaurant so that we can see how much they enjoy the food and can get instant feedback to know how we can improve,” said Kanlayanee.

Though Dee Garden Thai Kitchen only opened last December, the Phothiworn family has a lot of experience in the food industry. Originally from Nong Khai, a province on the northeast side of Thailand, they ran a food and grocery business that served their entire village for more than 10 years. The vegetables they used were homegrown in their own garden—a tradition they have continued now that they're in Utah.  

They specialize in Isan cuisine: the cooking style native to their part of Thailand, known for its use of sticky rice and fresh vegetables. Most entrees  run about $10–13, though they have an $8 lunch special that includes an appetizer, a soup and a smaller entrée. The dishes the Phothiworns most recommend to newbies are their pad thai and their massaman curry. 

“I think pad thai and massaman curry are the signature dishes of any Thai restaurant,” said Kanlayanee. “You will know if a restaurant is authentic or good by these two dishes.” 

An authentic pad thai will be sweet and savory with a little kick of sour, and the noodles will have completely absorbed the sauce. There shouldn’t be anything runny pooling at the bottom. Massaman curry should be rich, mild and sweet, which makes it a good pick for children or those who have a low tolerance for spice. Dee Garden’s is pleasantly thick and utterly delicious. It can be ordered with your choice of meat, and together with rice, an $11 bowl can easily feed a small family. 

"To be honest, I think we make the most authentic Thai food in this area," said Kanlayanee. "We make sure the food is made with quality and compassion. My parents don't ever shorten the necessary time to make pad thai, even when we are busy. And we work as a family, which means that the restaurant is not only family-owned, but we treat our customers like family too. We want them to feel comfortable and at home."

Nepali Chulo, a Nepali/Indian restaurant located at 3376 South 5600 West, faced a similar lockdown dilemma to Dee Garden. They opened in Nov. 2019, giving them around four months to build a customer base before the pandemic shut everything down. 

“It was crazy,” Manager Mani Gautam said of the lockdowns. “But we are still here. We are surviving. Since we are new, we are still getting a lot of new customers.”

Gautam and his head chef are both originally from Nepal, and both worked at another local Indian restaurant, Himalayan Kitchen, for many years before deciding they would prefer to branch off and start their own business. And thus, Nepali Chulo was born.

The restaurant is named for a traditional wood-burning Nepali stove. Generally made of mud, chulos are common throughout rural areas of Nepal where gas and electricity are hard to come by. Though they’re harder to use than more modern stoves, chulos give a very particular flavor to the food that is cooked upon them, which makes them quite beloved. 

The menu is absolutely massive. They have all the standard Indian favorites, such as chicken tikka masala, lassis and samosas, but they have a lot more flavor options than most. In addition to your more common mango and rose lassis, they also offer banana and salty lassis, and they have eight different varieties of naan bread, including a very filling garlic-cheese naan.

Their Indian dishes have much sweeter, rounder flavors than most other Indian places around Salt Lake County. But it’s the Nepali specialties where Nepali Chulo really shines. Their momos—Nepali dumplings, available stuffed with chicken, bison or vegetables and served with a bright orange curry sauce—are especially fantastic. Most entrees run between $13–16, but for $21 you can get a one-person meal set that includes three curries, daal (stewed seasoned lentils), yogurt, tamarind chutney and dessert. Portions are generous.