The Global Table: Mimi's at Findlay Market serves up crispy egg rolls and curry cooked 'with love'

CINCINNATI - If you go to a Thai house, you're going to eat. That's how Sithi "Sam" Assanuvat rolls, as he goes about cooking up tasty Thai food at Mimi's Gourmet Egg Rolls and Curry Bowls.

Signature dishes

The simple menu is a snapshot of what's good on Assanuvat's dinner table. If you're unsure of what to get, ask for a sample. Assanuvat is only too happy to oblige. What's more, he really savors the chance to talk about Thai food.

Egg rolls rule at Mimi's. The gourmet egg roll (below) fan base--which extends all the way to Cleveland and Indiana--means 450 to 600 egg rolls fly off the deep fryer every week. The crispy goodness includes pork, chicken and vegetables--freshly made and fried to order.

Fancy a curry bowl? You have three kinds to choose from: Massaman, Yellow and Red. The Massaman curry is mildly spicy, with the Yellow Curry moderately so. The Red Curry sounds off the high heat alert.

Flavor wise, the Masamman curry overlaps with curries of Malay origin, with the use of spices like cumin, coriander and cardamom. The Yellow curry gets its signature color from turmeric, and its unmistakable aroma from ginger and lemongrass. Together with its middle-of-the-road heat level, this curry is the go-to choice for many customers.

If you're feeling daring, take a chance on the Red version (below). This curry gets its color and heat from--you guessed it-- red chili peppers. All of the curries here have one thing in common: coconut milk. This luscious liquid adds a subtle sweet note, and washes over the curries with a nice layer of creaminess.

The national stir-fry of Thailand, Pad Thai (below), is another dependable crowd pleaser at Mimi's. Rice noodles are stir-fried with a medley of ingredients, like garlic, onion, eggs and Assanuvat's secret Pad Thai sauce. He would only say the "secret" in the sauce is "a lot of love."

The Thai Chicken Pepper dish is Assanuvat's creation. You'll find colorful red and green bell peppers in this dish, alongside onion, jalapeno, yellow and green zucchini.

Assanuvat sums up the food this way: "The price point of my food is about 30 percent lower than other places, but it's 100 percent better."

Meet the owner

Sithi “Sam” Assanuvat retired from a career in retail management and is busy working on his second act: cooking up Thai dishes for the crowd at Findlay Market. He's having the time of his life.

At his family's encouragement, Assanuvat started Mimi's Gourmet Egg Rolls & Curry Bowls in May 2013. The eatery is named after his wife, who he describes as "very, very special."

Born in Bangkok, Assanuvat first came to the United States in 1962 to join his parents.

"I was 12 or 14  years old. It was hard at first. I missed playing with my friends and cousins," he recalled. With his grandmother having 13 children in total, Assanuvat had many cousins.

Assanuvat went to Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) to pursue a degree in criminal justice. It was there that he met his wife, Mimi.

"She's my sweetheart," Assanuvat said, with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. They have been married for 32 years.

It was also in college that Assanuvat learned to cook. He grew up with food fit for a prince, thanks to his grandmother, who used to work in the palace kitchen.

"My grandmother worked as a cook in the king's palace," Assanuvat said, referring to Thailand's King Rama IX.

According to Assanuvat, when you cook for the king, you make sure not a single bone or seed remain in the food.
Still, his college cooking days got off to a rough start.

"I burnt the rice four or five times before I got it right," Assanuvat recounted. The smell of burnt rice did not sit well with the folks in the dormitory. "They were going to kick me out. I learnt quickly not to burn the rice."

His memory of his grandmother's cooking lessons, and his own determination pushed him over the hump. After cooking for his family for the last 30 years, it's safe to say Assanuvat is now a pretty good cook.

"Practice makes perfect, just like everything else," he said. "My wife doesn't cook, period."

"This is not only a passion and hobby. I want to spread my knowledge about food," Assanuvat said. Judging from  his customers' enthusiasm, they can't wait to eat every bit of knowledge  Assanuvat dishes up.

Cultural flavor

According to Assanuvat, a number of folks are surprised when they taste his curries.

"They raise their eyebrows because the curries taste different from the curries they know," he said.

For some, curries are synonymous with Indian cuisine. The fact is, many Asian countries have their brand of curries. Moreover, there can be sharp regional differences within the same country.

Indian curries are vastly different from Thai curries, employing a complex blend of spices, such as cumin, coriander, turmeric and cardamom. By contrast, Thai curries lean on fresh aromatic

components, like lemongrass, shallots, garlic and cilantro. Another point of difference is the use of dairy products in Indian curries, and the use of coconut milk in Thai ones.

The heat level of Thai curries is notoriously off the charts. Even with the "hot" designation of the Red Curry at Mimi's, Assanuvat recognizes it's still tame compared to traditional Thai curries.

"My strategy is to increase the heat level slowly. I want people to be able to eat and taste the food," he said.

Thailand is also home to many exotic fruits. Assanuvat speaks fondly of his favorites: mango, durian and mangosteen.

"That's why I go back to Thailand every two or three years."

By the way

How would you like to eat at Mimi's free for one whole month? Win Assanuvat's challenge, and you can. Taste the Thai Chicken Pepper, and tell Assanuvat at least four ingredients in the sauce. It sounds simple, but no one has been able to do it.  According to him, only two ingredients have been properly identified so far.

"I'll even give you the bus fare home." 

(All photos by G. Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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