In 1984, if you were to tell Vilayphone Manivong when she first came to Winnipeg from Laos that one day she would be a chef and co-owner of a very successful Thai restaurant, she would not have believed you.
"When I moved to Canada I never liked cooking," said the bubbly Vilayphone, as I interviewed her and her daughter Annie on how she ended up at Sabai Thai (1113 Corydon Avenue). "But 10 years ago I started to work at Magic Thailand (842 Logan Ave) in the kitchen, and that's how I started to like Thai food."
Puzzled by this jump in events, I asked her why she decided to work in a Thai kitchen? Especially with no experience at that.
"I guess money," said Vilayphone. "At home I would cook, but because I had no choice. But when I got to Magic Thailand, I liked the money, not so much the cooking," she jokes.
Between laughter I had to follow that up with a question on how she became good at cooking:
"Well, if you are going to do it, you have to give it your best," said Vilayphone, who was still working her day job selling jewelry at Hilary Druxman (which was something she did for 10 years) when she started at Magic Thailand.
"I turned out better than I thought [at cooking]. After a two week test [at Magic Thailand] they were very impressed. Whatever they tell me to do I pick it up and make it better."
I tell you, this woman is an absolute gem.
Vilayphone Manivong runs the kitchen at Sabai Thai along with her sister and co-owner Supasorn Sayavongsa, while Vilayphone's daughter Annie Manivong manages the restaurant. Supasorn and Vilayphone are there all the time, open to close, while they shop every morning at various locations for all their produce and goods.
It's a complete family affair. Vilayphone and Supasorn's husbands both work at the restaurant at night (after working day jobs); Annie's brother Alex works as a cook, and her sister Jennie also works the front of the house. Alex and Annie are both in university too, so sometimes Annie's friends also work at the restaurant to help her out when she is making the schedule.
You can't tell the story of Sabai Thai without talking about Magic Thailand, as they are so interconnected.
Sabai Thai first opened in 2007 as an offshoot of sorts from Magic Thailand, with many of the same recipes. It was opened by Kham Vilaykeo, whose mom Noy Vilaykeo is the owner of Magic Thailand.
Annie used to work as server at Magic Thailand for many years and then after came to work with Kham when he opened up Sabai. At the time, Annie's brother Alex also had started to work at Magic Thailand, so needless to say, in the words of Annie, "us and Magic Thailand have always been close family friends."
Long story short, Kham and his wife ended up having young kids (which can obviously be time-consuming when you are running a restaurant) while Vilayphone had been joking with him that if he ever wanted to sell Sabai, then she would love to buy it -- as long as her daughter Annie would help out.
That all happened in May of 2013, and the place has continued to get even busier -- and it was already very busy under Kham.
It's so busy that Annie was saying they've pretty much maxed out with what they can do with the space, in that the restaurant is usually quite full for dinner while the take-out orders don't stop. (Don't bother looking for them on Skip the Dishes as Annie says they've been asked several times and they say no way, they are already at capacity in this kitchen). They've also got to the point that Vilayphone is seriously considering opening up a second location in another part of the city.
The reason I'm compelled to do a story on them is it's the place I order take-out from the most.
Sabai Thai ranks in my top Thai restaurants in the city -- the other's would be Laos Thai and Magic Thailand, of course.
(Full disclosure: I was debating Thai food in Winnipeg with a buddy of mine last night -- who has also lived in Thailand like me -- and he is adamant that Sukhothai has the best soups, while a reader from Thailand has tweeted me to state that Siam Thai is the most authentic in the city. So there you have it #themoreyouknow☆).
According to Annie, the most-popular orders are the pad thai (no ketchup in that sauce, all tamarind my friend), summer rolls ($7, made with organic vegetables and rice noodles wrapped in rice paper), and spring rolls ($7, which I rate as some of the best in the city, along with the accompanying peanut sauce).
My favourite two dishes are the Chiang Mai Noodles (Khao Saway, pictured at top of article) and the Three Mushroom Panang Curry, which I feel is more wholesome than Mr. Rogers' cardigans (well, maybe a bit spicer than that).
The Khao Saway features vermicelli noodles tossed in a creamy yellow curry broth, with a roasted chili jam and a pile of julienned carrots and red cabbage, along with some cilantro, scallions and fried chow mein noodles.
In this, you get that fun interactive bowl of goodness element where you get to smash all the elements together with your chopsticks. The results hit all those hallmark Thai notes -- you have a jaunty balance of tanginess (from the lime and fish sauce), sweetness and spice from the broth, along with layers of texture between the chewy vermicelli, the fried noodles, and the crunchy vegetables. It's simply a real pleasure to tackle.
As to the Three Mushroom Panang Curry, like I said it just feels good, like putting on sweat pants right out of the dryer. The curry itself is quite luscious: the coconut milk is heavily reduced while the flavours of peanut, lemongrass, coriander, and chilis run throughout. You get chewy textures and woodsy flavours from the assorted mushrooms, while Thai basil, green beans, and red peppers add some sweet, aromatic elements.
When you order, they'll ask you what level for spice, and I'd say that Sabai Thai cooks on the lighter side in that regard, so if you want to feel the burn (which I've never really understood) go with a 9 or 10. (FYI, I'm totally cool with a 7, and I'm not huge on torching my tastebuds).
Sabai Thai is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday.
On Saturday, they only do dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Closed on Sundays.
For take out call 204.888.6508.