I was lucky. On April 5, 2018, a Facebook friend, Kevan Yenerall, who teaches political science at Clarion University, sent me a note on Messenger warning me that his wife had opened a new Thai restaurant in Blawnox. I hadn’t planned on having dinner that night so decided to check it out and was immediately impressed with the freshness and quality of all the dishes I tried. The tom yum soup was particularly impressive, perfectly spicy and bright, with shrimp. And I was doubly surprised to learn that this was the very first day that Maenam Thai was open!
That evening I learned that Maenam Thai means “Thai River” and that the nearby Allegheny inspired the name.
Kevan’s wife, known as Nee – her full name is Supannee Khansuwan – grew up in the small village of Ban Cho Ko, located in Roi-Et province in rural northeast Thailand. She and Kevan met thanks to the incredible matchmaking skills of her Aunt Sudee, who worked at an Asian restaurant called Penn Dragon in Clarion where Kevan was a regular customer. There were letters, photos exchanged and a visit in 2004. The following year they got engaged and Nee came to America in 2006 to marry the young professor. Kevan says a lot of paperwork, procedures and interviews for permanent residents followed; immigration and romance are not always easy.
Although Nee has an uncle who ran a small, informal restaurant on her shrimp farm in her hometown, she didn’t have much experience as a cook or restaurateur when she first came to America. She quickly learned the trade, first at the Penn Dragon in Clarion, then at the Bangkok Balcony in Squirrel Hill, then in 2010 as a chef at the Smiling Banana Leaf in Highland Park. His culinary skills led to other managerial positions at Thai Me Up on the south side and at Thai Cottage in Regent Square from fall 2012. But Kevan says his wish was to have his own place. “She talked about it for years.
In 2015, Nee became a U.S. citizen at the U.S. District Courthouse on Grant Street. Downtown, and still cooking, she continued to plan her own little restaurant.
At first, among its many charms was its small size. Originally there were only three tables, accommodating 10 people. Call it intimate. Eventually a sidewalk table was added, but during the pandemic the tables were tidied up and the business became a take-out. Today, Old Thunder Brewing has opened just two doors down on Freeport Road, and brewers allow you to bring in food from Maenam Thai, even when a food truck is parked outside.
But it’s Nee’s new take on her homeland food that still thrills me. Take out is always the rules, but I often splurge and buy things for tomorrow as well as for tonight. There is now an excellent green papaya (Som Tum) salad on the menu and grilled marinated pork on skewers (served with sticky rice and a spicy lime sauce), but Nee admits she may be the one. more proud of its tom yum soup. “I like to do it because I like to eat it,” she says. And there’s also world-class crab rangoons, superb crab-fried rice, exotic khao soi, and fresh avocado rolls with peanut sauce.
I was there the first day and hope she cooks forever.
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TOM YUM SOUP AT MAENAM THAI IN BLAWNOX by Rick Sebak on Vimeo.