Welcome to Intriguing People 2018, our annual celebration of Las Vegas’ cultural trailblazers and social trendsetters. See more from this year’s series here.
When Nittaya Parawong arrived in Las Vegas in 1994, the culinary landscape was barren. It was a struggle to find authentic Thai cuisine, and even more challenging as a restaurateur who wanted nothing more than to share her love of food from her homeland.
“You had to have egg drop soup and sweet and sour chicken just to be in business,” says Parawong, who opened her first restaurant, Jasmine Thai Gourmet, in 1999.
While the restaurant was successful, so much so that she opened a second “express” location, cooking simply to please the masses didn’t sit well with Parawong. “You just can’t stand yourself calling something Thai food and making something else,” she says.
With customers’ palates becoming more discerning and Las Vegas evolving into a bonafide foodie city, Parawong finally opened the restaurant she’d always wanted to in 2010.
Located in Summerlin, Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen is now one of Las Vegas’ most coveted dining destinations, one that’s both true to the chef’s origins and her creativity. Dishes range from the traditional pad thai and panang curry to inventive delights, such as Parawong’s tempura spinach salad and the Golden Pouches, her take on the crispy Thai dumpling.
In April, she takes it even further with Block 9 Thai Street Eats. Also feeding the Summerlin area, her forthcoming endeavor brings the tastes of Bangkok to the ‘burbs, promising the same flavor of her eponymous restaurant but with a more casual menu and ambiance.
Parawong’s success can be traced to one simple Thai staple: papaya salad. The flavorful blend of papaya, carrots, dried shrimp, fish sauce, palm sugar, peanuts, tomatoes, lime juice and Thai peppers hits you with a three-punch combo of sweetness, tang and just the right amount of heat.
The common dish was the most prized at her mother’s restaurant in Thailand. According to Parawong, it even won the attention of the king, who invited her mother to the royal palace to prepare it for him. And it’s the reason Parawong’s family was able to send her to U.S. to study.
She continues that family tradition, proudly preparing it both for guests of her restaurant and her home.
“The look [on] their faces when they have the first bite, they’re expressions … It just makes me happy that I can make these people love what they are eating,” she says.
Watch Parawong make her papaya salad in the video above.