Duke’s Pad Thai
Thai Noodles Drawing Oodles of Diners
By April Blake
Unexpected is the perfect word to describe a small Thai restaurant in Cayce. Owners Noi and Chris Souvanna describe their brightly-colored new business as both a passion project for them, and as an overnight success. “I think Columbia has just needed a place like this,” said Noi.
Duke’s Pad Thai and Noodle Bar opened on Knox Abbott Drive in late September 2017, between an ice cream shop and a Western outfitters store. Nearly everything one needs to know about it is wrapped up in the name. Customers can choose from an array of fresh Thai entrees and appetizers, or customize their own bowl of noodles with a choice of protein plus noodle plus broth. Chris, who is the creator of many of Duke’s menu items, describes the noodle bar as Chipotle-style. Protein options include chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu, and vegetables. Next comes a choice of Thai rice noodles, ramen, Japanese udon, yellow egg noodles, or wide rice noodles. The bowl is finished off with one of their house-made broths: Vietnamese pho, ramen, a spicy and sour Thai tom yum, coconutty Thai tom kha, spicy curry, or vegetable stock. Everyone behind the counter is eager to help customers who aren’t sure what combination to choose.
Their other menu items are divided into soups; tacos (yes tacos! Their pad Thai taco is a best seller); street eats that include spring rolls, tofu or chicken satay, and meats on sticks; entrees and stir fried noodles and rice. “For us, it’s about the quality and the freshness and not about overpowering flavors,” said Noi. “On the noodle bar, you see us place all of the meat and vegetables in the bowl. We want to keep it a fun, healthy choice.”
The recipes they use are a blend of traditional and ones that Chris experimented with for years. Chris explains that one of the traditional dishes, the crispy rice salad, he had grown up eating, and it is authentic. The labor-intensive dish is usually reserved for celebrations due to the process of making it that includes brining the sausage three days in advance, but it is available every day at Duke’s.
Their other most popular dishes are the pad Thai and the drunken noodles. Drunken noodles, also known as pad kee mow, do not actually contain alcohol. According to legend, a woman threw together this spicy fried rice noodles and vegetable-heavy dish for her very drunk husband and these noodles helped to sober him up quickly. The eggs, broccoli, zucchini, carrots, bean sprouts, and basil in a garlic sauce make this dish a delicious choice.
More experimentally-minded diners would want to check out the specialty section of the menu, which has items like a spicy Thai-style chicken basil, sweet and spicy squid, and the Golden Phoenix that is comprised of shrimp, squid and roast pork stir-fried with mixed vegetables in their special house sauce.
“We wanted to have a lot of variety on the menu but not too much, so we created the menu so we have a little of everything,” said Chris.
Besides the food, one of the most noticeable things about Duke’s is the distinctive decor. Brightly painted teal walls with bold words, orange chairs, and striking graphics greet everyone who walks in the door, and the story behind them is unique.
Noi and Chris’ 9-year-old son Phoenix picked out the colors and helped the graphic designer come up with the logo, which he wanted to resemble his brother, 3½-year-old Duke, the restaurant’s namesake. “Phoenix even picked out the tiles up front and designed the pattern of them — he’s very artistic,” said Noi. For those who ask about the logo, they love to show off a photo they have of Duke behind the register that shows the resemblance between him and the character, even down to the little curl of hair across his forehead.
The Souvannas, who are originally from upstate New York, have been in South Carolina since 1996 after following Chris’ large family down South. The high school sweethearts have been in the restaurant business for many years. Duke’s is not their first restaurant venture, and they hope to further grow this brand and are already thinking about possible locations in Lexington or Irmo, Chris said. “This is the original, we’re not going anywhere!” Noi said.
In fact, this location is a place that Noi was already familiar with, as it used to be where she took the family’s dry cleaning. They were looking for a place for their restaurant and when she tried to bring her dry cleaning in one day she realized the space had been converted to a restaurant which had already closed its doors. “I saw the phone number on the door and put a deposit down the next day,” said Noi. Frequent travelers along Knox Abbott Drive, the Souvannas felt like the space and had a lot of potential. “Cayce is growing so much as a city, and it’s also so close to West Columbia, and downtown is only six minutes away! We’ve been so blessed to be here and we’ve been so well received.”
On the small side for a restaurant, Duke’s Pad Thai has about 30 indoor seats and also does lots of takeout orders. They see a lot of people from the nearby Avenues neighborhood who walk or even quite literally run in for lunch or dinner, which truly gives it a family-friendly neighborhood feel, reflecting what they value most — health and family.
904 Knox Abbott Dr., Cayce