HEART OF GOLD: The temple’s 2.5-ton Buddha was shipped from Thailand to Houston. When it finally arrived in Dallas, it cleared the doors by an inch. Photography by Justin Clemons

The Most Authentic Thai Food in Dallas

Situated in a residential neighborhood, the Buddhist Center of Dallas offers an oasis for quiet reflection.

I came first for the food. The hard-to-track-down, elusive fare you’d find on the streets in Thailand. The stuff that grandmothers and aunties make, that has one name or several and a different composition every time. 

I’d had a taste of this. In California’s Bay Area, where I lived before Dallas, there were two Buddhist Thai temples where food stands popped up on Sundays, proceeds benefiting an active community and its monks. The one in downtown Berkeley was overrun by Bay Area techies. The scene was lively and the food was delicious, but I never felt like staying long. The temple in Fremont was different, niched in a suburb, on a quiet street that backed up against the East Bay Hills. My friends and I were usually the only non-Thai visitors. Families came and stayed all day. I followed their lead. Children went to classes in the vast space under the sanctuary. Prayers and chants drifted from above. At the stands in the back, I was handed my first bundle of sticky rice wrapped in charred banana leaf and marveled at its simple flavor. Marveled, too, at homely looking pumpkin curry heady with fermented chile paste and kaffir lime. I lacked any understanding of what might be proper etiquette and didn’t dare go too far. There was the distinct sense, always, that something powerful was at work. I could feel it tugging at me from under the surface.

The koi pond and garden provide a tranquil spot as well as a stage for festivals. Photography by Justin Clemons
When I moved to Dallas, for a while I mourned what I thought I’d left behind. Then I found even more than I’d hoped for. The Buddhist Center of Dallas, with its Thai temple, near Central Expressway and Forest, is of the Fremont model. Park on a residential street. Walk onto the grounds, past elephant statues and a shrine adorned with fresh flowers; past colorful landscaping; past the koi pond and gurgling fountain and low-slung houses whose purpose you don’t yet divine. Behind the temple—dominating, vibrant, ornate atop its alabaster-white steps—are the food stands, beckoning with clouds of grill smoke and the clamor of metal spoons against woks. They’re operated by aunties who make curries in their kitchens, families that marinate the meat they’re grilling on skewers. They’ve been doing it for years.

Beyond bright colors and explosions of flavor was a depth I hardly knew how to approach. At the same time, openness made it transparent—open to anyone curious.

A woman pounding green papaya’s jade-colored shreds brusquely asks, “Crab?” before crushing it in a mortar into which she’s thrown one, two, three Thai red chiles. “One chile is better for you, honey,” she says, point-blank. 

There’s the woman who makes northern Thai-style sausage, studded with sticky rice. Some grow their own vegetables. Most are home cooks. Only two have restaurants (this is their day off; they’re making the “real” stuff). Amid stacked bowls, simmering pots, single gas burners, they’re doing things you only vaguely understand but know are delicious. And for whom? For you? The answer is as complex and elusive as the flavors.

This is not stuff you find on restaurant menus: a cauldron of soup bobbing with cubes of congealed blood; tangy-sweet ochre curries roiling with funk-factor and incredible heat; coconut-milk chicken curry with the tart smack of sour bamboo; pork cooked with young, green peppercorns in clusters like grapes; fish cake; cured pork; sausage on a stick. Kaffir lime leaf is everywhere. The air is seized with fish sauce.

Once the initial giddiness wore off, I began to see the outlines of a community beyond the food stalls. I noticed that others who came often left with great bundles to go, making the home cooking last halfway into the week. The younger generations are busy, one woman explained. “They don’t know how to cook like that anymore,” she said. Teenagers helping at stalls were also getting lessons in recipes handed down. 

I was sent home with a kaffir lime tree and instructions on how not to kill it. In Texas? On my balcony? In the winter? Why not? It was just a matter of the right care. With a wrinkled hand, the woman showed me the vegetables she’d brought that day—Thai eggplant and green chile peppers and crazed, lumpy gourds—as though to say, “See? Where do you think these grew?” 

Photography by Justin Clemons
I sat next to a woman who had taken Thai dance lessons here and whose soon-to-be-born daughter, she hoped, would, too. The woman whose curry I most admired led me by the hand to the classroom where students learned to play barrel-shaped taphon drums and bamboo-framed circles of gongs. One rainy Sunday, shoes shed, I let myself into the house where I’d heard that adult Thai language classes were taught. In the stillness of the library, I studied the books’ curling characters. As I waited, a monk in an orange robe padded by. No one was tracking my ingress or egress. I’d come for the food and found myself in far deeper than I’d planned. 

I was humbled as well. Humbled to hear of the volunteers who came every day to prepare food for the monks (custom forbids they do so themselves). Humbled by the delicate mix of brashness and restraint, playfulness and reverence. Beyond bright colors and explosions of flavor was a depth I hardly knew how to approach. At the same time, openness made it transparent—open to anyone curious. 

This was far more than food stands. 

•••

The Thai Buddhist temple of North Dallas started in 1982 in response to the needs of a growing Thai community. Thai students were studying at UTA and other North Texas institutions. Jobs with companies in Plano and Frisco were a draw. “Dallas is a good place,” says Ken Theppote, president of the Buddhist Center of Dallas, the nonprofit organization associated with the temple. “It was a good point of entry, education-wise.” Meanwhile, there was a strong desire to establish what, in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, would often be a community’s heart. “In Thailand, everybody is involved in the temple,” says Apiwan Born, a mother and longtime community member who showed me around one Sunday.

The first temple was a rented house in Lake Highlands, but within a year, the fledgling community had purchased the property on Stults Road, a parcel—now 1.3 acres—that would modestly expand as they bought up a small cluster of houses one by one, the most recent across the street, purchased last year. 

People still remember when the grounds were hardly more than a sandlot with a swing set, a few houses, and a forest of bamboo in back. The cluster of buildings houses the temple’s five monks and the school where students study classical Thai dance, music, and performing arts on weekends.

Theppote and Born take me inside the main schoolhouse they bought five years ago and thought they’d have to raze, so poor was its condition. People pitched in; it still stands, a testament to the power of communal effort. As we survey the room where students have left bamboo musical instruments, my two guides recall ones they made in the “old country”: drums of frog skins, violin strings made with horse hair. When members of the community travel to Thailand, they often return with the kinds of simple instruments I see before me, or the makings of costumes—the silks and sequins that dazzle in performances. 

The temple, resplendent with its tiered roof, undulating with serpentine finials and punctuated by blazing golden ornaments like fins or flames, was completed in 2012. Before that, the sanctuary was a small house at the front of the property whose kitchen is still used by the volunteers who prepare meals for the monks. It took 15 years to raise the $2.5 million for the temple, one year to build it, another to realize its decor, much of it commissioned from artists in Thailand.

Pansak Sribhen, president of the Thai Association of North Texas, which works closely with the temple, has been part of the North Texas Thai community since 1968. He is also an engineer and drew up the plans for the temple. “I grew up seeing this Thai architectural style,” he says. He has subtly transliterated it. Classical lines achieved with Western construction materials; wat architecture in concrete and reinforced steel. 

The raised second floor—the sanctuary itself—is the second largest in surface area in the United States, Sribhen says. One in Boston is larger, he admits, but built in a modern style. “We think we’re the largest Thai,” he says with a smile. Above the ground-floor base that functions as a community center (built solidly enough to qualify as a city disaster shelter, Sribhen points out), the sanctuary swims in gold, every inch crammed with symbolic color and detail, from the ruby carpet to the dazzling, cut-glass chandeliers. Brilliant stained-glass windows, made in Thailand, kaleidoscope the floor with lotus flowers and elephants. Murals depicting the life of the Buddha were painted by Thai artists on precisely measured wallpaper and then shipped. Temple artists don’t sign their work, Born tells me; instead, hidden markers hint at the temple’s location and context. In the horde of demons swarming the Buddha, who meditates under his Bodhi Tree, I pick out the figure wearing a cowboy hat and consulting a computer tablet opened to Facebook.  

I’m still staggered by my mental image of the arrival of the sanctuary’s 2.5-ton golden Buddha, shipped from Thailand to Houston, then over land by truck to the temple, where a crane waited. I picture the scene as the statue was taken from its crate. “We measured and measured and measured,” Sribhen says. It cleared the doors by an inch. It must have been glorious, glittering in the sun, an apparition in the sleepy suburban neighborhood. More than 100 monks had flown in from Thailand to set and sanctify the temple boundaries, marked by ornamental turrets. “We jacked him up on four hydraulic jacks,” Sribhen says with an engineer’s pragmatism. The spiritual meets the practical in this place where monks’ responsibilities include daily upkeep of the gardens and buildings. When I come on a Saturday to help in the kitchen, the monks eat and intone over the crew, then the head monk, Tan Pok, who has been here 23 years, retreats to work in the dim overhang of a garage on what looks like a carpentry project. 

SOURCE CODE: Murals and stained-glass windows inside the sanctuary were made by artists in Thailand and swarm with symbolic detail, including hints at the temple’s location. Photography by Justin Clemons
Several times each year, festivals bring crowds to the grounds. In April, for Thai New Year, students perform traditional Thai dance and music. Satay sticks and coconut-rice-flour balls cover tables dripping with blossoms, the food contributed by the numerous Thai restaurant owners who are part of the community. At the Thai Culture & Food Festival in May, docents from the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art have given tours of the temple as a striking example of traditional architecture and art. 

Teresa Nguyen helped organize the last two May festivals. She is proud when she says she suspects it’s the largest outside of Melbourne, drawing 10,000 to 15,000 visitors, she estimates. The funds raised are put to good use. “Some goes to the temple, but some goes directly to the community,” she says. “I saw firsthand how it helps people. Paying for hospital bills, paying for funerals, paying for hard times, hardships in the Thai community.”

The community remains small and tight-knit, though it’s growing. “Ten years ago there were only four ladies, the noodle lady, only three or four picnic tables,” Nguyen says. “It’s grown so much.”

Meanwhile, the temple’s website is still mostly impenetrable and mostly in Thai. Word of the Sunday food stands—and even the festivals—still travels mostly by mouth. Nguyen worries that this might be a turnoff. Perhaps. For me, it’s a comfort to know that the only concession anyone will make is to pound my papaya salad with a tad—just a tad—less heat. 

 

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