Thirty years ago, Amnat Laohapant's family opened Thai Room, the first Thai restaurant in Washington. These days, the Southeast Asian cuisine is available all over the capital.
But the Thai restaurant scene has remained pretty sparse in Howard County, where just a few spots dish up the likes of Pad Thai and Satay.
So the Laohapants were entering another Thai-deprived zone when they opened Bangkok Garden late last month in Columbia's Oakland Mills Village Center.
"Some of the customers and some of the Thai people say, 'Why don't you open the restaurant in Columbia? How come everybody opens in Washington, D.C., and how come not in Columbia?'" Laohapant said.
After running a restaurant in Bangkok, the Laohapants moved to Washington and helped start Thai Room with other relatives in 1972. Seventeen years ago, they split off from the group and opened their own place, Bangkok Garden in Bethesda.
Laohapant said his parents, who are in their 50s, were at first reluctant to start another restaurant. But he said they finally gave in to the pleas of customers who live in and around Columbia.
"My parents, they don't want to open anymore. They're tired. They want to retire," Laohapant said. Then they realized that Thai people lived in the Baltimore area also, he said, and that persuaded them to go ahead.
Their new Bangkok Garden seats about 80. Bright and airy, decorated with rose-colored curtains and portraits of Thai royalty, the restaurant looks nothing like the Hardee's it once was. The spot was also home to Congee House, which closed last year.
Bangkok Garden serves dozens of Thai specialties. Appetizers include Satay, which is grilled beef or pork served with a peanut sauce and cucumbers; and Larb, spicy ground beef or chicken. There are fried egg rolls and a fresh variety that comes smothered in a tangy sauce. Soups are flavored with coconut milk and lemongrass.
Entrees range from Pad Thai, a popular noodle dish with shrimp, to Pork with Hot Chili Pepper and Beef in a Coconut-Peanut Curry Sauce.
Among the seafood choices are Squid with Basil Leaves and a whole fried fish topped with ginger, mushrooms and black bean sauce. The vegetarian menu features Fried Bean Curd with Black Bean Sauce and Stir Fried Bean Thread with Jelly Mushroom.
Diners can top off the meal with desserts such as custard or mango with sticky rice, and wash it all down with sweet Thai iced tea.
The full menu for both Bangkok Garden locations is available on the Web at www.bkkgar den.com.
Many people who have never tried Thai food fear that it will be too spicy, but Laohapant said that customers may request tamer versions of traditionally spicy dishes.
Each meal is made to order, he said, so adapting it to even the most timid tastes is no problem.
"It's made order by order, and if you see anything that's too spicy, you can tell the waiter you want [it] less spicy," he said. "We can make [it as] hot as you want."
As further enticement, the restaurant is offering a 15 percent discount on all tabs at the Columbia location through the end of this month.
Where: 5810 Robert Oliver Place, Oakland Mills Village Center, Columbia; 410-992-9553.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers: $1.95 to $7.25; entrees: $6.25 to $15.50; desserts: $3 to $4.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express