Bethany Clough

There’s a new restaurant in the Tower District — and a familiar cook is drawing big lines

‘She makes her food with love.’ Former Million Elephant cook opens her own restaurant

Kham Chounramany, who developed the menu at the old Million Elephant, has now opened her own restaurant - Noodle Express - in the Tower District.
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Kham Chounramany, who developed the menu at the old Million Elephant, has now opened her own restaurant - Noodle Express - in the Tower District.

When Noodle Express opened this month the Tower District was ready for it.

The new little restaurant attracted a big line – and it’s all because of the diminutive cook in the kitchen, Kham Chounramany.

The restaurant serves Thai and Lao food, at at 601 E. Olive Ave., in the former La Arepa spot on the corner of Echo Avenue.

Chounramany used to cook for Million Elephant, the restaurant down the street that used to be a late night Tower staple, though it has been closed for several years. It just reopened a few weeks back as India’s Oven, an Indian restaurant with a full bar.

Chounramany didn’t just cook at Million Elephant, but created many of the recipes, said her daughter, Ning Bouasana, part of the family who ran the restaurant for years.

So when the Tower grapevine spread the word that a new restaurant would be making many of Million Elephant’s dishes, crowds of customers showed up at Noodle Express.

“We knew her food had a huge following down here,” said John Greggs, Chounramany’s son-in-law. “It was overwhelming how much love and support we got from Tower.”

The familiar dishes include spring rolls served with peanut sauce, the rolls made with fresh vegetables in transparent rice paper wrappers.

You can get rad prik chicken wings or tofu, either one tossed in a sweet and spicy garlic sauce. The pad si ew is back too, made with thick rice noodles.

One dish that’s starting to become popular is the pad kra pao made with crispy pork (it can also be made with chicken). It’s a traditional Thai dish, a stir fry with with a particular herb and meat minced into small pieces, served with a sunnyside up egg and a side of steamed rice.

“It’s a really unique flavor,” Bouasana said. “It’s starting to become really popular.”

There are plenty of noodle, curry and rice dishes on the menu too. You can also get pho (a Vietamese soup). Many of the dishes can be modified to be vegan or vegetarian.

Chounramany will occasionally chat with customers. But she doesn’t speak much English and is usually back in the kitchen.

She hasn’t always been a cook. Back in Laos her profession had nothing to do with the culinary world: She was an accountant for a pharmaceutical company.

But as often happens with immigrants, her profession changed when she came to the U.S. 18 years ago. A family member owned Million Elephant, so Chounramany started working there.

“So when the Million Elephant closed, she kinda retired,” Greggs said.

She had another job, but it wasn’t cooking her recipes and “she was kinda just bored” Greggs said. “So let’s get you back in doing it.”

Greggs and Chounramany’s daughter also own the restaurant. They’re full-time real estate agents and Bouasana also does bookkeeping and taxes (in case you haven’t noticed it already, there’s no shortage of work ethic in this family). The pair have temporarily moved their real estate office to a corner table at Noodle Express.

As for the restuarant name, the couple intended it to be a mostly to-go restaurant. But customers made it clear they wanted to sit down and dine so the restaurant does both.

“We were actually overwhelmed,” Greggs said. “We weren’t ready for that many people.”

The restaurant is still busy, so if you don’t want to wait, go early or late.

For now, Noodle Express is open 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p .m. Sundays.

Bethany Clough covers restaurants and retail for The Fresno Bee. A reporter for 20 years, she now works to answer readers’ questions about business openings, closings and other business news. She has a degree in journalism from Syracuse University and her last name is pronounced Cluff.
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