The 135-seat eatery is the only Thai restaurant in the borough, and brings the home-cooking flavors of the Furstoss family of Toms River to the Tanner Street eatery that used to house Joe Brown’s Melange.
By Matt Skoufalos
Extending above the Tanner Street sidewalk in Haddonfield, the two O’s in the sign for Sanook Thai restaurant loop together to form the symbol for infinity.
The word “Sanook” means “fun and joy; a good time,” says chef-owner Nalatta Furstoss; the infinity band pushes them together into what her son, Justin, calls “the story of our lives.
“We’re on a constant rotation, like all business owners,” he said. “The flavors in your cooking are passed down from generation to generation. It never ends; everything’s always transferred.”
When she was young, Nalatta Furstoss’ grandparents bought a rice farm in central Thailand, a region of the country where floating markets are common. She moved to Bangkok to study, and later emigrated to the United States, where she had three children: Kawyn, Justin, and Ethan. For seven years, the family operated a Thai restaurant in Toms River, but when it was sold in November, Furstoss came to Haddonfield in scouting her next location.
Her sister-in-law Barbara (who used to own the 7-11 in town) has lived in the borough for 30 years, and while visiting, Nalatta fell in love with the Tanner Street building overhauled by Chef Joe Brown as the now-long-shuttered Melange. After a whirlwind start—the family got its operations underway within two weeks in March—Sanook Thai is finding its footing within striking distance of the Kings Highway business district.
“We love downtown Haddonfield,” Nalatta Furstoss said.
Family is the central concept at Sanook Thai. Justin is the jack-of-all-trades who keeps the business going, from the kitchen to the front of the house.
His great-aunt Na’Ran shares responsibilities on the cooking line; his cousins help cook, expedite, and serve food. Their generational experience and sweat equity is critical to its success.
“When friends come over, I spend most of my time in the kitchen,” Nalatta Furstoss said. “We want you to come in walking into my kitchen. My kids eat just like this.”
Family-style is also the preferred approach to Thai cuisine, said Justin Furstoss. Individual orders are a Western custom, but in Thai culture, everything is shared. A typical meal will consist of a curry dish, a noodle dish, and a stir-fry dish with cashew or ginger, eaten together, and often mixed together. Rice is a focal point, but despite popular conception, spiciness doesn’t have to be.
“Everything’s made fresh to order,” he said. “That’s the one thing we take the most pride in. Soup is made individually. Vegetables change with the season. Nothing’s the same every time because nothing’s pre-set.”
“I care about every dish coming out,” Nalatta Furstoss said. “We built the first business that way. We want everybody to come in and enjoy what they experience.”
Growing up in Toms River, Justin Furstoss said the family is used to crabbing and clamming from the oceanside docks in the area, or eating flounder right off the boat.
“We’re trying to keep that same thing,” he said.
Sanook Thai is a B.Y.O.B., and suggested alcohol pairings include Thai lagers like Tiger, Chang, or Singha.
The restaurant houses 130 patrons, with a dining room, rear banquet area, and outdoor patio—a sizeable upgrade from the family’s former restaurant, which was a “lively” 35-seat eatery, Justin Furstoss said.
The restaurant has kept much of the interior elements from its prior owners, with a few personal touches. Its bamboo-styled silverware is from Thailand; leaf-like plates and bowls that seem inspired by floral shapes echo those designs. Justin Furstoss said the dining room is headed for some changes, with new ceiling tiles, lighting, and upgraded booths and tables.
The rear banquet area will become a low-seated, tapas-style lounge, and the patio will be redone with space heaters and a heated floor to extend outdoor dining into the fall months. Children are welcome, and private rooms are available for individual parties.
Of course, family is central to the experience at Sanook Thai; even the receipts have a line on them that says “First is Family.”
“We’re not an Asian fusion restaurant,” Justin Furstoss said. “We’re strictly Thai. We’re Nalatta, to be honest with you. My dad, my aunt, my mom: they want to be in this for the long run.”
Sanook Thai is located at 18 Tanner Street in Haddonfield, and is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday). Takeout is available, and delivery is soon to follow. Entrees range from $15 to $35.
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