Taking Le Next Step

Mix Zone’s Daniel Coughlin goes downtown

Daniel Coughlin

Le name

The name “Le Thai” stems from an inside joke about a friend named Le Moon that began “after a few drinks,” Coughlin says. “He’s this unbelievable chef. He’s actually been on the Food Network.” The joke stuck around, and so did the name.

Food philosopher

Coughlin explains his culinary approach using easily digestible metaphors that appeal to the American palate. Our favorite: “If you add fish sauce to a curry, it’ll make the flavors explode,” he says. “It’s like adding salt to french fries.”

A twist of lime

Dishes such as pad thai come with lime wedges on the side, but not because studies have shown citrus is an appealing garnish. “It comes with a lime for a reason!” Coughlin says. “You’re supposed to use it, and squeeze it on top.”

From the street

During his most recent trip to Thailand, Coughlin was blown away by the amazing food produced in rudimentary street kitchens. “There would be a lady with, like, one burner back there and a wok, and … she’d cook the best pad thai that you could ever think of.”

Neither judge a book by its cover nor a restaurant by its name. Le Thai might sound like Vegas’ newest Thai-French fusion restaurant, but don’t let the title’s first word fool you: There will be no French influences in this kitchen when it opens downtown in late summer.

From his seat at The Beat Coffeehouse, restaurateur Daniel Coughlin gazes across Fremont Street and through Le Thai’s still-vacant storefront to what he imagines will soon be a bustling back patio filled with greenery. After owning and operating West Charleston Avenue’s Mix Zone Thai Café for three years, he sold that also-curiously named restaurant and began focusing on Le Thai last year.

“People were always asking, ‘What’s Mix Zone?’” he laughs. That restaurant already had its name when he bought it, but Le Thai is his baby. He’s growing the eatery from the ground up (with the help of investor and legal adviser Puoy Premsrirut) and named it himself.

When Le Thai opens its doors at 523 E. Fremont St., it will offer 20 to 30 Thai staples as well as a small selection of exotic daily specials. Plans call for a 20-25-seat dining room, but Le Thai will be able to serve 40-60 additional guests thanks to the 800-square-foot space out back. “The patio is key for us,” Coughlin says. “We want you to go back there and be in your own little Thai jungle.” Coughlin hasn’t always been a fan of downtown. In fact, there was a time when he didn’t know it was there at all. That changed after his girlfriend, Shauna Dong (a.k.a. DJ SuprA), brought him to the Get Back at Beauty Bar on a First Friday in 2007. “I was, like, ‘Whoa!’” he recalls. “I didn’t know Vegas had a downtown that rolls like this.” He soon crossed paths with downtown power couple Michael and Jennifer Cornthwaite, the brains behind Downtown Cocktail Room, Emergency Arts and The Beat, and eventually decided to make the move to the area, both personally and professionally.

On several nights a week Le Thai’s patio will transform into a party place with performances by DJs. Still, the self-taught chef says, “It’s about the food.” And although he is technically half-Irish, Coughlin is 100 percent Thai when it comes to cooking. “I’m like a cross between my grandma’s recipes, my mom’s recipes and what I like about Thai food,” he says.

Coughlin comes from considerable culinary stock: His mother opened Milwaukee’s first Thai restaurant; she and Coughlin’s stepfather now run two King and I locations in Las Vegas.

Despite his pedigree, Coughlin wants Le Thai to be different. The cuisine at many Thai restaurants in town, Coughlin sighs, is “really sweet—tons of coconut milk, tons of sugar. I like it more balanced: salty, sugary and sour.” These exotic tastes attract many adventurous culinarians, but to others they remain a mystery.

“I still meet people who haven’t had Thai food—and it’s 2011!” Coughlin says. He’s hoping to change that, and to correct some common misconceptions along the way. “What people need to learn is Thai food is exactly like Italian food,” he says, noting how, like the distinctive tastes that dot Italy’s culinary landscape, Thai food draws its flavors from its region. Many northern dishes borrow traditions from China, while southern fare shares flavors with spicier neighbors in Burma and Vietnam.

Coughlin looks forward to the day when people stop expecting the pad thai to taste the same. Returning to the example of Italian cuisine, Coughlin notes: “That marinara sauce doesn’t taste like that [other restaurant’s] marinara sauce, and it’s not supposed to,” he says. “It’s the same thing with Thai food.”

Coughlin prepares to make his case in a few months with Le Thai.