Per Lee feels a certain satisfaction that goes beyond the obvious when customers fill his Thai Country Restaurant.
Yes, he needs to make money and turn a profit at the business that he and his wife, Khamla, have owned for nearly 10 years.
But a full restaurant also helps balance the difficult early years when the Lees worked to get established at Bullard and Villa avenues. Per Lee lost both weight and hair during that time, said his daughter, Crystal Lee.
Today, he cooks with his family in the kitchen at Thai Country. He and son, Beer, do all the stir frying, while Khamla Lee oversees the soups, salads, curries and sauces. Crystal Lee — who recently graduated from nursing school and is temporarily filling in at the restaurant — chops vegetables and does other prep work in addition to handling appetizers.
Thai Country has two standing specials — Panang and Basil — that are served at lunch and dinner. They are among the restaurant’s most popular dishes, said Crystal Lee.
With both specials, customers select one of four choices: meat (beef, chicken or pork), shrimp, seafood (a mix of shrimp, scallops, imitation crab and calamari) or tofu.
Their choice is served with panang, a medium spicy curry, or basil, a sauce made from fresh chilies, onions and mushrooms.
Both specials come with pad thai, stir-fried rice noodles cooked with egg, green onions, bean sprouts and ground peanuts. Customers also choose between jasmine or sticky rice.
When served with beef, chicken, pork or tofu, the two specials are $9.95 apiece. The shrimp option is $11.95 and the seafood option is $12.95.
Thai Country’s three other curries vary in degrees of spiciness. Yellow curry with potatoes is the mildest.
Red curry and green curry come with the same vegetables: zucchini, bell pepper, peas, bamboo shoots and sweet basil. Red is medium spicy, while green is the spiciest.
Meat, shrimp, seafood or tofu come with each curry. The meat or tofu is priced at $10.95, the shrimp at $12.95 and the seafood at $13.95.
Appetizers at Thai Country include but aren’t limited to veggie egg rolls (bean threads, taro, cabbage and assorted vegetables) at $4.50 and chicken satay (chicken on skewers in a mixture of spices and coconut milk, served with peanut sauce and cucumber salad) at $7.50. Many parents choose chicken satay for their kids.
Five soups are on the menu. Crystal Lee said her favorite is tom yum goong, a hot and sour soup with Thai spices, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions. With chicken, tofu or veggies, it’s $10.95. It’s $12.95 with shrimp and $14.95 with seafood. The base is chicken broth, but a vegetable broth can be substituted for vegetarians and vegans.
Thai Country offers 10 salads, and they include cucumber ($3.95), mango (fresh raw mango with onions, chilies, cilantro and peanuts in lime dressing for $8.50) and yum woon sen (bean threaded noodles with shrimp, chicken or pork, chilies, onions, cilantro, mint and tomatoes in lime dressing for $10.95).
In addition to the pad thai, seven other noodle dishes are on the menu. They include pad see-ew (pan fried flat rice noodles stir fried with egg, broccoli, carrots and sweet sauce) and pad kee mao (the same rice noodles stir fried with chilies, green onions, mushrooms and basil). Prices range from $7.50 to $9.95, which includes a meat choice. Shrimp is $2 extra and seafood is $3 extra.
Per and Khamla Lee were both born in Laos. He grew up there, while his wife was raised in Thailand. After coming to the United States in 1975, Per Lee cooked at casinos and hotels.
The family moved from Orange County to Fresno-Clovis in the early 1980s. Per Lee opened Thai Country in August 2006 because he wanted to be his own boss.
The restaurant’s clientele has grown, but no customer was bigger — literally — than 7-feet-1-inch tall Richard Kiel, the late actor famous for portraying the character Jaws in the 1977 James Bond film, “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Kiel lived in Coarsegold before his death in 2014.
A photo of Kiel and Per Lee hangs on the wall at Thai Country. An inscription on the photo reads: “To Per, Great Food.”
Bryan Johnson of Auberry agrees with that assessment. “Best Thai food in town, as far as I’m concerned,” he said after lunch recently. “The food is consistently good and the prices are reasonable.”
Thai Country Restaurant is at 151 W. Bullard Ave., at the northeast corner of Bullard and Villa avenues. The telephone number is (559) 298-6697. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Orders placed 30 minutes before closing are to-go only. Thai Country is closed Sunday and Monday. The restaurant’s website is thaicountry.us and it’s also on Facebook.