All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
Lunch begins with Joe Pumphaung’s dumplings.
We’re sitting in the sun room, an enclosed patio space that faces the concrete jungle of Greenville Avenue and SMU Boulevard, inside one of Dallas’ oldest Thai restaurants. Tender purses, crimped at the top, seal in a fine blend of garlic, peppers, onions, mixed vegetables, shrimp, pork and oyster sauce. They’re inspired by the home-cooking of Pumphaung’s mom.
The crab fried rice is next, a delicate swell of soy-stained rice that’s capped like a snowy mountain with crab meat. It’s another home-cooked dish that Pumphaung brings to the table, and it will change you. There’s plenty of crab fried rice in the city — you might find it with chewy panels of imitation crab from to-go spots around the area— but Bangkok’s real, juicy slivers of crab over wok-fried rice, seared by the smoking-hot conical pan, are absolutely out of this world.
Bangkok at Greenville is nearing 25 years old, but the flavors and feel are of home, history and family with much earlier roots.
Pumphaung sits quietly but doesn’t eat. He darts through the dining room. He beckons in Thai for pad Thai and basil noodles for the table. He’s a humble and hard worker, an easy trait to notice as he sifts through his past with an egoless ease. His experience is disarmingly interesting: He’s a skilled florist. He knows real estate. He attended the Royal Thai School of Culinary Arts, where he learned to make dishes visually pop. Now, he supports his family back home with a three-pronged Bangkok restaurant empire (He owns Bangkok at Greenville, Belt Line and Addison.)
“Opportunity here in America ... there’s a huge difference from the opportunity you’ll find in Thailand. So I took it," he says.
He learned from his mom and dad. You can sense, just by meeting him, that home cooking has been a central part of what makes his family family. His mother had a restaurant on the west side of Bangkok for 30 years. Pumphaung moved to Dallas, rooted and used his real estate powers to settle into the kind of comfort food that he grew up with: It’s the salty, sweet hints of spice flavors that combine the tools of wok-fried rice and egg and dumplings from China, chiles from Spain and curries from India. Bangkok at Greenville, his flagship restaurant, mixes them into chords like a composition for the piano.
The crab fried rice is disappearing in fast forkfuls as the pad Thai arrives. The fried rice is warming and comforting, a family-made feel that pervades every aspect of the restaurant. The curry is all humming heat and and silky coconut milk that's knifed with the citrusy bite of kaffir lime leaves. Basil noodles taste like the namesake herb — fresh and earthen and eye opening.
Pumphaung's staff is composed of family members, both immediate and distant (his lime leaves and basil are delivered regularly from an old friend), and he treats his customers the same. One of Pumphaung's regulars sold Pumphaung a house in the Park Cities for a price that'd make you shake your head in disbelief. When your restaurant customer offer a their home, something must be going right.
Pad Thai, in Thailand, is the “Hey Jude” of dishes. It’s the icon; it’s the gravity that pulls you in, and every Thai spot, like tomato sauce for Italians, will cook a different version.
“Pad Thai is the national food of Thailand,” Pumphaung says without hesitation.
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Pumphaung’s pad Thai shimmers with tamarind, a scarlet sauce tossed with palm sugar, paprika, salt and tender noodles. Fine peanuts, pulverized into a near powder, sit on the side for sprinkling. With the grassy crunch of bean sprouts, this is a musical dish. It’s the Red Headed Stranger of pad Thais — an ironclad, Dallas-born classic.
As for the future, there's not much to his plan. It’s centered on increasing his online delivery radius and continuing to serve the people he loves. In the past few years, business has increased for his internet orders through Beyond Menu or UberEats.
Pumphaung holds his phone out to show a photo of the orders from Sunday night; the tickets for web orders are as thick as a Stephen King novel. He’s gone from a two- to three-mile radius to about seven in the past few years. Limited parking — no shock there — is a major inconvenience for the restaurant, but an uncomfortable parking situation, as we all know, will never stop a family from getting good food.
Bangkok at Greenville, 4503 Greenville Ave.