In Asian cultures,” Antika Kohengkul says, “your heart always belongs with your family.” That’s why the 33-year-old New York-based risk-management consultant is waiting tables again after 15 years. “Surprisingly, it’s like riding a bike,” she says.
Antika’s mother, Sue Kohengkul, smiles and dips her head when she sets down a tall glass of Thai tea for me to sample. The drink is a creamy tangerine to match the curtains of Thai silk that Antika designed and sewed to decorate Gaati Thai Kitchen, the family’s new restaurant, which opened in October on Eastern Avenue and Horizon Ridge Parkway in Henderson. The tropical flowers in glass-boxed frames are also her creation. Even the tables, the bench, the menus and placemats have been lovingly handcrafted by family. Sue came to the United States from Thailand 30 years ago. She and her sister, Mara Chen, were the original owners of Las Vegas’ Thai Room and later Thai Room 2—the restaurants where Antika grew up. The outgoing Sue always worked the front of the house (usually with her husband, PK) while Mara made magic in the kitchen and Antika bused tables, poured water and played in the back with her brother and cousins until she was old enough to serve. For nearly 20 years, locals and celebrities returned again and again for Mara’s dishes and Sue’s conversation. But, for Sue, the most memorable patron was the visiting princess of Thailand, who liked the food so much she ordered out twice.
Antika left for college at Boston’s Northeastern University in 1996, and, by 2005, Sue and Mara decided to take a break and sold Thai Room 2. For the first time in decades, they were out of the restaurant business. Antika, meanwhile, was traveling the country on business, but nowhere could she find dishes as delectable as the ones she grew up on. So she encouraged her mother and aunt to get back in the game and open Gaati. She wasn’t alone in this recommendation: For years, former customers would stop the sisters around town and ask when they might open a new restaurant. Gaati—the name means coconut milk, a common base for many Thai dishes—reflects the involvement of the family’s younger generation. The girls who grew up in the restaurants—Antika and her cousin Julie Quinones—worked with their mothers to create a health-conscious menu featuring family recipes.
The kids also made sure to start the new restaurant with a detailed business plan. Antika’s research confirmed that, in the right location, with the older generation’s wisdom, talent, work ethic and reputation, Gaati was a fail-safe endeavor—even in this economy. And she knew her mother and her aunt needed this; after six years off, they were growing restless. After designing the Gaati interiors, getting the place opened and working the tables for several weeks, Antika must now return to New York and the world of finance. But she says her time back in Las Vegas has been one of the best investments she’s ever made. “I’d rather put my money toward helping family, versus buying shoes,” she says. “At the end of the day, you get more return.”