Ken Cao is the restaurant’s co-owner and sushi chef. Originally from Taiwan, he lived and worked in New York City before moving to Atlanta six years ago, where his family opened a Thai restaurant and a Japanese steakhouse.
Now, the family business has expanded into Oxford. “There are a lot of chain restaurants here, but not a lot of independent, family-owned restaurants,” Cao said. “We wanted to bring something exotic to this area.”
Plus, he added, it’s a nice place to raise children. He has three, ages 8, 3 and 1. “We had a very warm welcome when we opened,” he said.
Thai cooking has a reputation for being spicy hot, but it’s much more than that. Thai cuisine is about balancing flavors – hot, sour, sweet, salty, bitter – as well as fresh herbs, delicate aromas and beautifully presented food.
And, OK, it can be loaded with enough chili peppers and chili paste and chili powder to blow off the top of your head.
But not at Pacific Spice – unless you want to blow off the top of your head.
Here, the Thai dishes are offered in varying levels of spiciness. All start off mild, but you can request an upgrade to “medium” or “Thai spicy.”
The mild versions are quite mild. Cao also has a good number of people who order “Thai spicy.”
There are several distinctive flavors and aromas in Thai cooking: coconut milk, kaffir lime, fresh basil, cilantro, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, peppercorns, chiles.
There are also ingredients at Pacific Spice familiar to any Southerner:
• Fried catfish, only here it’s served in a brown sauce with onion, bell pepper and fresh basil leaves, accented with a sprig of fresh green peppercorns.
• Sweet potato, here served in Japanese hibachi dishes, or in a sweet potato roll from the sushi bar.
• Iced tea, made with strong, spicy black Thai tea, topped with sweetened condensed milk.
• There’s even a Thai version of rice pudding for dessert. Mango sticky rice is a square of rice cooked in sweetened coconut milk, served warm alongside slices of fresh mango.
Thai cooking was influenced by neighboring Southeast Asian cuisines. The curry dishes borrow from India. “The noodle dishes and the stir-fries are influenced by Chinese cooking,” Cao said. “The different is that we cook the meat in water instead of oil, and use a Thai sauce.”
For an introduction to Thai foods, consider these dishes at Pacific Spice. The entrees can be ordered with chicken, beef, tofu or shrimp.
• Nam Sod, an appetizer of minced pork with ginger, onion, peanut, chili and lime juice, served with cabbage.
• Chicken coconut soup, heady with coconut milk, kaffir lime and a hint of heat.
• Pad Thai, rice noodles with meat, topped with green onions and peanut sauce.
• Spicy Basil, meat sautéed with chili, onion, bell pepper and fresh basil.
• Panang Curry, meat, bell pepper and basil in a curry sauce made with coconut milk and chili paste.
In addition to Thai dishes, Pacific Spice also serves Japanese hibachi dishes – only without the big flashy cooking show that chefs put on at Japanese steakhouses. Hibachi items include chicken, steak, salmon and shrimp. “We use the same ingredients we use at our steakhouse in Atlanta, but we can offer hibachi at a much better price because we don’t do the show,” Cao said.
At Pacific Spice, the Thai cooking is handled by a Thai chef from Atlanta, NY Sayamoungkhoune.
The Japanese hibachi and the sushi are handled by Cao, who has worked at sushi restaurants since 1998, starting at Hatsuhana sushi restaurant in Manhattan, where he spent three years training under master chef Yoshida.
Cao has a network of seafood suppliers around the world. The tuna is flown in direct from Hawaii. Other seafood comes from a Japanese fish market, via Atlanta.
The restaurant offers both sashimi (fresh raw seafood, thinly sliced, served with dipping sauce and condiments) and sushi (rice and lots of extras, with raw seafood, cooked seafood or no seafood at all). Choices include tuna, salmon, red snapper, eel, octopus, crab and scallops.
There are three traditional items on the sushi menu: tuna roll, yellowtail roll and cucumber roll. The rest is a festival of invention, including the Pacific Roll (pepper tuna, cucumber, eel, smoked salmon, fish roe), the Fantastic Roll (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, avocado), the Supersonic Roll (shrimp tempura, spicy salmon, asparagus), the Godzilla Roll (fried soft-shell crab, cucumber, avocado, tuna, eel), and many, many more.
And just in case the word “eel” has scared you off, Pacific Spice offers an entrée called “Sushi for Beginners,” with five pieces of cooked sushi and a California roll, for $12.95.