Food Finds - Crushcraft Thai Street Eats, Dallas, TX
*I visited Crushcraft way back in July and am just now getting it on the blog. This one is quite wordier than my usual blogs, but this place made such a wonderful impact on me - from the concept to the design to the focus on making really good food accessible to the masses, Crushcraft is my new favorite Thai eatery. Since sampling their take on traditional Thai street foods, I've been to countless restaurants, hoping to duplicate the experience. Crushcraft stands alone. Read on to find out why, if you live anywhere close to Dallas, you should be frequenting this downtown joint.
Jack Nuchkasem and his crew at Crushcraft Thai Street Eats in Dallas, TX welcome a wide variety of street food enthusiasts at their Uptown location, from well-dressed young professionals to the occasional bikini wearer sporting trendy flip flops. “If they’re brave enough to walk in the door in bathing suits, I’m brave enough to serve them!” laughs Jack as he passes me an ice-cold Thai tea which I sip appreciatively.
A relative newbie on the rapidly-expanding Dallas food scene, Crushcraft, which focuses on educating and providing “fast-casual” Thai street food to hungry Texans, opened in January of 2014 and has quickly become the go-to spot for inexpensive but spot-on Thai cuisine. The brain-child of former executive chef Paul Singhapong – who hails from serious Dallas eateries such as Cru Wine Bar, Omni and Starwood - and Jack Nuchkasem who himself has a hefty history in the food and beverage industry, Paul and Jack know Thai cuisine well. Both natives of Thailand, they grew up on the street foods found in the bustling markets in Bangkok.
“Paul talked me into it one day, actually while we were playing a round of golf,” Jack explains. “He knew he could replicate that style of Thai cooking and he felt I was the right person to run the restaurant.” Jack admits it was feedback from his two sons that inspired the creation of a unique atmosphere that would set Crushcraft apart from the sizeable number of Thai restaurants in Dallas.
“My son, Tan, told me, ‘Dad, if you’re going to do this, you can’t do normal. It’s got to be something different, something unique that will get people to try real Thai cuisine. Otherwise, it’s not worth doing.’” Jack and Paul agreed. They knew Thai cuisine inside and out, and while Dallas was receiving plenty of east-coast and west-coast transplants, they knew Thai food was still an unknown commodity.
“Most importantly, my father wanted to make his cuisine accessible to anyone willing to try it,” Tan revealed to me later in an email when I prodded him for more background information. “It may not be the perfect business model,” he continued, “but keeping the price low and the menu simple is, what I believe, making this place so successful. If you have ever spent time in Bangkok, you'll see people from all walks of life able to enjoy amazing food because it’s so accessible and affordable...the way it should be.”
More complex than traditional western cooking, Thai food has a tendency to intimidate some palates. Most dishes are a combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy – but the goal of each dish is to balance those ingredients harmoniously. In his cookbook Pok Pok, Andy Ricker admits after traveling in Thailand and gorging himself on the street foods of Bankgok and in the markets of Loei, his idea of coming home to open up a take-out only shack in Portland were met with cautionary warnings from close friends. They suggested no one in the states would want to eat it. Andy now owns four restaurants in Portland and two in New York City serving cuisine that’s hard to find outside of Southeast Asia.
Andy knew what Paul and Jack know: some people do like Thai food and educating them about the cuisine will lead to more people liking it. You just have to get them in the door.
So Paul and Jack decided the design of the location as well as their website was crucial in setting them apart from other Thai restaurants. They hired a local design firm to recreate the look and feel of the markets in Thailand. Vibrant and colorful, the place thumps with trendy music and is open and airy. They specifically wanted to target an area that took advantage of young working professionals who are usually well known for being more open to trying new or unfamiliar cuisine. If they could create a steady following in that regard, they felt it would give them enough backbone to convince more cautious Midwestern diners to give them a try.
So far, it’s working. Headed into their eighth month of operation, they’re already branching out into small catering jobs. Jack attributes the wild-fire acceptance not only to the concept behind the design but especially to the quality and adherence to the traditional techniques of the food itself.
Attention to detail was not lost on the concept behind the name of the restaurant, either. Tan shared that most Thai food dishes employ the use of a mortar and pestle to grind spices and chilies, hence the "Crush" in Crushcraft. Chef Paul’s food is very much handcrafted which is how the crew likes to think about it (i.e. the "Craft"). “We thought it was sort of cheeky way since we love Thai food (i.e. Crush), combining the two just made sense to us,” says Tan. “If you notice, our logo is actually Thai writing. It says ‘lak’ which translated means ‘love’.”
Crushcraft in no way feels cramped, but they have literally no storage space for food, so that means fresh produce and meat must be obtained daily. This is a huge bonus for the consumer – you’re getting the best ingredients possible, but it’s definitely a challenge for the restaurant. “We want to keep prices down,” explains Jack after I marvel that not ONE menu item is over $10, “and it’s not easy when you’re trying to source the best possible ingredients.” Originally, Paul and Jack wanted to grow the unique herbs and spices found in traditional Thai cuisine on site, but the health board is pretty strict when it comes to that. “I’d say 40% of our ingredients we’re able to provide on-site and the remaining 60% we’re able to source locally here in Dallas.” That’s a pretty impressive ratio with everything being served comprising of the freshest ingredients possible.
There are, however, some ingredients in Thai cooking that you simply can’t get here. While Jack explained that it’s easier now than it was 10 years ago to obtain those ingredients, he and Paul really wanted to keep things as close to home as possible, so Paul created his menu in such a way as to use local ingredients to take the place of harder-to-source Southeast Asian staples while keeping the dish as traditional as possible when it comes to flavor; another unique take that raises the bar for Thai cuisine in Dallas – or anywhere in the States for that matter.
Their menu of “humble homey” dishes, highlighting the traditional street food found in Bankok is a great place to start with plenty of ice-cold beer. Take it up a notch and try a few selections from their “swanky citizen” offerings which highlights Thai favorites like phat thai and khao soi – a glorious dish of egg-noodles, chicken, curry soup, shallots and chili oil. You should probably share a papaya salad with your dining buddy. It puts green-leaf salads to shame with its amazingly hot and fresh and sour and sweet and through the roof flavor. Hands down this is your new best friend on a hot and sweltering afternoon in July.
These dishes are the cornerstones of traditional Thai street food and you can reliably find them on the menu daily. But just so you don’t get too comfortable in your new-found knowledge of Thai food, chef Paul often heads back to Thailand (he’s there now, Jack explains as we put in an order of phat ke mao, wide rice noodles laced with chili oil and swimming in a spicy ground beef and pepper “ragu” – the perfect hangover dish) for inspiration. He heads directly for the open-air markets, pen, paper and palate at the ready, creating a top-secret menu of fusion-style dishes that will only appear on Crushcraft’s social media outlets. Braised pork belly with soy and a twist on pla phat plik (a super spicy fish dish) are among special dishes that sell out quickly, often surprising the crew who scramble to get more fresh ingredients in-house for fear the demanding crowds may riot.
It’s a nice problem to have, Jack admits. The process has been challenging and not without a good amount of seriously hard work, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with a more satisfied restaurateur. “Other people are sure to copy this model,” Jack says, sipping on the last of his tea, “we won’t be the only ones on the block to do something like this.” He may be right about that, but Crushcraft is the first of its kind, and everyone remembers their first time.