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Restaurant Tours: inside River Kwai's melting pot

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A simple yellow plastic sign hangs over the cash register at River Kwai Seafood II, a ramshackle Thai joint on Belmont just west of Ashland. "This is not Burger King," it reads. "You don't get it your way. You get it my way, or you don't get the damn thing."

The saying has been copied numerous times by River Kwai's customers onto paper plates, scraps of paper, and strips of cardboard and hung next to the sign and on adjacent walls. There are versions in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Tagalog, Greek, Hindi, Arabic, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, Finnish, Swedish, Urdu, and Dutch.

"What country I got people from?" asks Decha Chotipradit, a 52-year-old Thai who owns the restaurant with his younger brother Boonsong. "Tahiti. People from Australia, New Zealand, India, Netherlands. From Kiev, which used to be in Russia, a dancer came in. I got one Mongolian guy that comes in, he's short with dark skin. Iceland, they come in. Canada, a lot. We got Tunisia, from Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria. South Africa, a lot of them. Vietnamese people, Burmese people. A lot of Swedish ladies. One of them, she liked me a lot. We had one guy from Mozambique. Cameroon, Central America, and South America come in. I interview them, all of them. 'What are you doing here? How'd you get here? How'd you get away from the Mexican border patrol?' And they all love my rice."

Decha is grateful that he's a Buddhist, because his job requires vast oceans of patience. Almost every night he handles, cajoles, and soothes a ridiculous melange of hungry people, from cabdrivers to bored teenagers to drunks on all-night benders. Boonsong, a taciturn brick wall of a man, doesn't work well with customers. He is, however, a competent cook. Wearing a denim apron with flowered patches, he toils over a hot wok all night. Decha deals with the hordes.

"A normal person would get depressed a lot," Decha says. "But with Buddhism, I keep my strength. Like Phil Jackson. You know why he won so many championships? He practices Buddhism. Sometimes customers make me so mad. They can't control themselves. I handle it, no problem."

Decha, Boonsong, and their sister, Sommuek, who also works in the kitchen, are from Bangpakong, a small town in eastern Thailand that is nowhere near the Kwai River, which runs along part of the country's western border. The restaurant's name came to Decha back in 1985, when his temple asked him to pick up a monk at O'Hare. The monk wondered what he did for a living. Decha said he was between jobs. The monk, who had just come from London, said he'd eaten at a Thai restaurant there called River Kwai that pulled in several thousand pounds a day.

The Chotipradits opened the first River Kwai a few months later, in a three-table storefront near Elston and Kimball. It didn't do well, but Decha already had his eye on the Belmont location. He was also contemplating staying open all night. Working the lunchtime rush nearly killed Boonsong, he says, and mid-afternoons were flat.

The building that currently houses River Kwai has been a restaurant since World War II. The last two owners before Decha were also Thai, but they did little to keep up the place; though relatively clean, the restaurant looks as though it was last renovated during the early days of the Marshall Plan. The hard rubber floor bulges and buckles in every corner and along every seam. The roof, which Decha says is made out of what once were bunks for air force pilots, was plopped onto the restaurant by a previous owner. The low ceiling is hollow plaster. Any customer over five foot six is in danger of decapitation.

A half dozen small tables are squeezed into perhaps 100 square feet of space. Decha encourages customers to get to know each other, since Boonsong takes a while to serve up the food. One customer from Downers Grove calls in his order around 9, just as they're opening, so the food will be ready when he gets there an hour and a half later. Despite the yellow sign over the register, Boonsong's heaping plates of fried rice, shrimp chop suey, curry chicken, and Thai pepper steak are, in fact, cooked to order. Some people want their food Chinese style, while others prefer pure Thai. "We are flexible," Decha says. "We do it the way they want. Many things we invented here. Made in USA. More meat, more shrimp, more egg, we do it."

Decha considers himself a liberal and is prepared to accommodate customers from every culture. He plays Greek, French, Egyptian, or Indian music on request. Yet he has developed some prejudices over the years, which he says are justified by experience. "Islamic, very hard customer. And the Irish drunk? Oh, that's a hard one. They want to go over everybody first. They want to fight my brother. Most lenient customers are Hispanic. They wait. They complain, but they wait. Those Moroccan guys, not bad. They got more dignity. Pakistanis are rough. Whoo! They want their way all the time. No breaks for nobody. But this is America. First come, first serve."

The brothers made the terrific mistake of not purchasing their building in 1986. Now Belmont is sprouting new condos like bean shoots, and Decha's landlady has informed him that the property's time is coming. He's only asked her for two month's notice. "I'm gonna move in either direction three-quarters of a mile," he says. "I'm gonna get everybody the address when I get my 60 days." He hopes to move into a bigger space, but realizes that might not be possible. As things stand, he can't accept phone orders most of the time. "We could make twice what we make now on phone orders alone," he says. "We have big business, you know, but there's no way. If we increased our orders, my brother might get a heart attack and die."

River Kwai Seafood II, 1650 W. Belmont (773-472-1013), is open 9 PM to 6 AM every day except Tuesday. --Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Decha Chotipradit and various restaurant photos by Nathan Mandell.

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