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Thai Suan Thip is a little taste of cultural food heaven

Step into Thai Suan Thip restaurant in Bellevue and you enter another world. Gentle music welcomes you, an ambiance enhanced by artworks brought over from Thailand.

Thai Suan Thip means Garden of the Heavens. It is also the name of a beautiful spot north of Bangkok where the chef and her husband were married.

Salakjit Gehr, Chef Joy, was born and grew up in Bangkok. She opened her restaurant in August to be an authentic evocation of the culture, service and taste of Thailand. Although there's been no advertising, the 50-seat restaurant is doing very well, thanks to word of mouth and returning customers. It's smart to make reservations for dinner on Friday and Saturday.

The menu draws on family tradition, study at a culinary school and work experience in Bangkok. The presentation is elegant in the Thai royal tradition, which she experienced at banquets. But Chef Joy says that sometimes street food in Bangkok was better than the fancy meals.

"Thai food is a balance of hot, sour, sweet and salty tastes. You have to balance them in the right way. You have to feel all those tastes in your mouth. That's why Thai food is different," she says.

The ingredients are as fresh as possible and each meal is made individually. There are no vats of soup in the kitchen waiting to be ladled into bowls. She grows her own lemon grass and some other ingredients in a garden behind the restaurant, and she buys other ingredients in the Strip District.

"A few ingredients, such as lime leaves, I've found must be ordered on the Internet," she says.

The flavor enhancer MSG is used widely in Asian cuisine, but never at Thai Suan Thip. The setting is traditional Thai: a spoon and a fork to move solid food onto the spoon. No chop sticks.

Thai soups are particularly popular. Tom Ka, $4.95 a bowl, is a hot and sour coconut milk soup with mushrooms, lemon grass, lime leaf, ginger root, cabbage, tomato and cilantro. It is served with your choice of chicken, pork or tofu at no additional charge. Shrimp is $1.50 extra; mixed seafood $3 extra.

The menu includes a dozen appetizers, $3.95 to $9.95, as well as a "Smarter Starter" sampler, $5.95. The Sea Angel is a tempura shrimp with a small potato ball for a head, garnished with a sliver of red bell pepper for a nose and black sesame seeds for eyes, $8.95 for four.

Entrees include curry dishes and more than a dozen other options, most $8.95 but up to $13.95. Home Sweet Home is the chef's recollection of one of her mother's dishes, which combines stir fried meat or tofu with cucumber, onion, pineapple, tomato, bell peppers and egg in the house sweet and sour sauce, $8.95, $1.50 extra for beef or shrimp, $3 extra for mixed seafood.

Beverages include Thai ice tea and ice coffee, lemon ice tea and hot ginger tea, $1.50 to $2. Siam Ruby Juice, $2, is made with the red hibiscus leaves Chef Joy remembers picking as a child in the family garden. Alcoholic beverages are BYOB. There is no corkage fee.

Additional Information:

Thai Suan Thip Restaurant

Location: 172 Lincoln Avenue, Bellevue

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Details: 412-766-1899

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