The stew-like five-spice chicken at Anya's Thai Bistro in Ashland includes marinated chicken thighs in five-spice broth. - Julia Moore

Happy Food

Health is inherent in Thai cuisine's variety of vegetables, their nutrients preserved by quick cooking and flavors enhanced with herbs and spices thought to aid digestion and the immune system.

Happiness, however, is the most redeeming quality of Anya Samlarn's food.

"If your tummy's happy, it goes everywhere ... and that's why I love food," says the Ashland restaurateur.

Customers have found plenty to love at Anya's Thai Bistro since it opened July 3 in a subterranean space at the edge of Ashland's downtown. From Portland's popular ethnic eateries and food-truck scene, Samlarn brought a big-city sensibility to Southern Oregon, along with her Thai heritage.

"I used my grandma and my mom's recipes," says Samlarn, who left Thailand in 1990 for a student's life in the United States.

"I don't change the way that I cook," she adds. "I just want to cook the way that Thai people eat."

A century-old food shop is still in Samlarn's family in Thailand. After moving to Portland, Samlarn attended culinary school and, in restaurant kitchens, also learned Vietnamese cuisine, which shares many ingredients and cooking methods with Thailand's.

"I was always interested in food," she says.

As Portland's interest in food trucks accelerated, Samlarn, 46, and 49-year-old husband, Todd Tennyson, set up their own truck and operated it for more than two years. The business demands amid close quarters often caused the couple to run out of food in the middle of the day. Or they were left waiting for crowds to brave rain and cold to visit their truck and some 800 others around the city.

"It was so weather-dependent," says Tennyson.

Looking for a restaurant venture "a little bigger" than their food cart, the couple gravitated to Tennyson's hometown of Ashland. The Underground Marketplace offered a kitchen just a bit larger than their former mobile digs. The unintended result of so little storage space, requiring Samlarn to shop almost daily, is the food's uncommon freshness for restaurant fare, say the couple.

"I cook from what I see at the market," says Samlarn.

Farmers Market in Phoenix provides a variety of produce, some of it local. The bistro buys organic herbs from a local aquaponics operation and receives deliveries of specialty ingredients from Portland.

Among those are young papaya, a key ingredient in a very traditional Thai salad that Samlarn plans to serve in spring and summer. Jackfruit will accompany homemade coconut ice cream in warmer weather, which also will bring fresh mango with sticky rice for dessert.

"Our menu is changing like every season," says Samlarn.

Also new for spring is squid, a virtually fat-free protein that stays succulent when grilled in the Thai style, says Tennyson. Shrimp is an option for most bistro dishes, and tofu is equally as popular as meat, which was never the case in Portland, says Tennyson.

"We sell a ton of tofu here."

Vegan meals are the bistro's most significant challenge, says Tennyson, because there's scarcely a Thai dish that doesn't require fish sauce or shrimp paste. Samlarn, he adds, is reluctant to serve modified recipes that don't taste authentic.

"We're kind of limited because it's tradition — because they don't do vegan in Thailand," he says.

Yet the couple encourage customers to state their dietary requirements, so they can make every attempt at accommodation. The menu touts all its curries as gluten-free, along with pad thai.

More than Thailand's quintessential noodle dish, the spicier drunken noodles meet with patrons' approval, says Samlarn. Curries all are prepared "medium" and simply can't be mitigated to "mild."

"We can make it hot," says Tennyson.

Despite the name, five-spice chicken is one of Anya's mildest dishes, and it's unique among local Thai-restaurant menus. The bird's dark meat is seasoned with the classic Asian spice blend of star anise, fennel seed, cloves, cinnamon and pepper, then braised for the better part of a day and served in its broth with a hard-boiled egg. Once people try it, says Tennyson, it's all they order.

The dish's sweet-salty flavor profile is more typical of Samlarn's native central Thailand. Areas to the south are known for spice; the north for pungent, fermented ingredients. Like the majority of Thai restaurants, Anya's makes good use of garlic and ginger, both cited in mainstream medical studies for their beneficial properties.

Known for its antioxidants, tea is another bistro focus little seen at other local Thai establishments. Samlarn says she grew to appreciate tea while working in Portland restaurants. Her list of 15 loose-leaf teas steeped in cast-iron pots includes several organic types.

"There's a lot of health benefit from drinking tea," says Samlarn. "We sold tons of tea in the winter."

With winter the slow season for most Ashland eateries that rely on tourists, Anya's built up its reputation as a favorite with locals. Although Samlarn and Tennyson believed Thai food was underrepresented in town, residents' response has far surpassed the couple's hope of support.

"We didn't expect much," says Samlarn. "The feedback here has been phenomenal."

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