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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 02:39 pm

Springfield Magic

Remembering the birth of a local restaurant phenomenon

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Untitled Document Before 1983, ethnic food in Springfield was pretty much limited to Italian (American) restaurants, Chinese restaurants (owned by émigrés who geared the food to American palates), and gringo Mexican taco joints (tasty but hardly authentic). Who could have guessed that a tiny coffee shop in a semi-seedy motel at North Grand and Veterans Parkway would change the Springfield dining scene forever? My husband, Peter, and I went there shortly after we heard about it, intrigued by the notion of Thai cuisine. The place was spotlessly clean but shabby. This was not a drawback to us. We’d spent much of our leisure time and limited finances visiting establishments listed in the Good but Cheap Chicago Restaurant Guide during Peter’s years in dental school.
Most of the restaurants listed were small ethnic eateries, and we had fun exploring them. A few Chinese places were in the guide, but we also relied on Peter’s Chinese classmates for recommendations. Those restaurants were certainly off the tourist trail, and we soon realized that it was best to go with Peter’s friends so that they could translate. For years the United States was involved in a Southeast Asian war that had cost countless dollars and lives, but the region’s cuisine was still unknown to most Americans. In our naïveté, we wondered whether it was much different from those little places in Chinatown. It’s been 24 years, but the memory of our first visit to that tiny Springfield coffee shop is still vivid. We ordered lemongrass soup. Our server, a short redheaded woman, tried to warn us: “It’s really, really hot,” she said. We, somewhat arrogantly, assured her that that was fine; we liked hot food. Was it pain, or was it pleasure? It was hard to tell. It was both. The flavors were explosive: bright, bold, searing, unlike anything we’d ever experienced. As we stumbled into the parking lot, steam still rising from our heads, we were in total agreement: The food was fantastic, but the Magic Kitchen could never succeed here. It just goes to show how much we knew. When I recently told Gay Amorasak (that redheaded server) about our initial reaction, she laughed: “Yeah, we didn’t really think it would work, either, but we were desperate to make money. We had two or three Thai dishes on the menu, but the rest was stuff like corndogs.”
Amorasak, a Springfield native, had served in the Peace Corps in Thailand. After returning, she headed to Chicago for nursing school. Mutual friends introduced her to Dang Amorasak, who’d recently come from Thailand to join his brother. After their marriage, Gay and Dang moved to Springfield. Dang wasn’t a professional chef, but his entire family — men included — were excellent cooks, and his mother had been a chef for a relative of the Thai royal family, so opening a restaurant was a natural move.
By 1985, business was brisk and the Magic Kitchen moved to its current location, on Peoria Road. A gas station in the 1940s and ’50s, the place had a funky ambience: knotty-pine walls and a glassed-in side room for the increasingly large crowds waiting for a table. The house in back, where the Amorasaks lived, had been a bootlegging establishment during Prohibition, complete with a tunnel reportedly used by Al Capone on his visits from Chicago.
The Magic Kitchen became a Springfield restaurant phenomenon. The food was incredibly good and incredibly cheap, even though the Amorasaks insisted on quality ingredients: real crabmeat, suitcases full of authentic curry pastes brought back from annual trips to Thailand, no MSG or gloppy sauces — and it was BYOB. Maybe it’s because the Magic Kitchen was my first exposure, but over the years I’ve eaten at many Thai restaurants in the United States and abroad but have never found any quite as good — even the very expensive and highly regarded Arun’s in Chicago.
Tuesday-Saturday, patrons began lining up outside the Magic Kitchen before 5 p.m., and there was a waiting list until the last diners were seated, around 10 p.m. Strategic planning was necessary to avoid a long wait: Getting there at 4:45 p.m. usually ensured a first seating, but coming just a couple of minutes before 5 meant risking a wait for the second seating; after that, it was every man for himself. Unless it was bitterly cold — and sometimes even then — the side room couldn’t hold everyone, so people spilled into the parking lot. Most brought coolers of wine or beer and began sipping while waiting. Crowd control became an issue, especially with so many people drinking for an hour or more before eating. In 1993, Gay pulled the plug: No more BYOB (the restaurant has never had a liquor license). “That slowed things down for awhile,” Gay says, “but before long we were as busy as before.” By 1995, the Amorasaks were exhausted. “I used to peel 10 pounds of garlic a week!” laughed Gay. “We just couldn’t do it any longer.” They sold the Magic Kitchen to longtime employees Soumaly and Sang Thongsithauong and moved to Hawaii for two years before returning to central Illinois. The Amorasaks opened a health-food store in Champaign, the Natural Gourmet, with a tiny kitchen where Dang cooks a few Thai items for lunches.
After a brief bumpy period, husband Sang and wife Soumaly had the Magic Kitchen running smoothly but eventually divorced. Soumaly kept the Magic Kitchen and opened a second location; Sang started Thai Kitchen and Thai Kitchen 2. For the most part, the food at both Magic Kitchens is as good as ever. The BYOB policy was reinstated at the Peoria Road location. The new restaurant, which has a liquor license, serves lunch. Except for a few new items (all excellent), the menu is unchanged. Dessert’s the only thing that has suffered: The homemade pies turned out by Ann Clough (Gay’s mother) were legendary. Most people reserved their favorites the minute the server came to the table to ensure that they wouldn’t run out. These days, the pies are commercially produced. If I have room for dessert, I opt for sticky rice with tropical fruit.
The multiple locations means that the restaurants, though busy, don’t experience the crazy traffic jams of those early years. It’s nice to be able to go without having to time arrivals with military precision. Honestly, though, it was kind of fun.
Magic Kitchen, 4112 Peoria Rd. (217-525-2230) and 115 N. Lewis St. (217-525-6975); Thai Kitchen, 620 N. Ninth St. (217-527-1665); Thai Kitchen 2, 2355 W. Monroe St. (217-726-5900).
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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