Khun Kay Thai Cafe’s Owner Retires, But Her Legacy Lives On
The Golden Room restaurant opened for business at the corner of Montrose Boulevard and West Clay Street on January 14, 1982, a rare snow day for the city of Houston. Owner Kay Soodjai hadn’t advertised the opening, so she was pleasantly surprised when the restaurant was besieged for lunch with hungry diners looking to escape the weather. The front and back parking lots quickly filled up, forcing customers to park on the grassy median in the middle of Montrose Boulevard.
It was a sign of things to come for the little restaurant in a then-downtrodden area of Montrose. The Golden Room opened as a Chinese restaurant, offering around a hundred Cantonese dishes on its menu. But the dishes from Soodjai’s native Thailand on the back of the menu increasingly became the customer favorites, helped by positive mentions by Houston Post restaurant critic Teresa Byrne-Dodge.
“When we started in 1982, nobody knew Thai food,” Soodjai told me. At the time, Golden Room was one of only two Thai restaurants in Houston. Others have since come and gone, and the city now boasts dozens of Thai establishments spread across its vast metropolitan area, but the Golden Room has endured, albeit under a new name. In 2008, Soodjai and her business partner (and sister-in-law) Supatra Yooto tore down the original building, and erected a new one. They used the occasion to rechristen the restaurant Khun Kay, which means “Madame Kay” in Thai.
“I knew this would be my last restaurant, so I wanted to put my name on it,” explained Soodjai, who first came to the US in the 1970s to study business at the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. While taking classes, she worked as a chef at a succession of gourmet restaurants, learning to cook American, Italian, and Chinese food, in addition to her native Thai cuisine. After graduation she worked briefly in New York, Chicago, and L.A. before deciding that Houston was where she wanted to make her mark.
In 1977, when she saw a piece of land for sale on Montrose Boulevard for $35,000, she leapt at the opportunity. Although the neighborhood seemed depressed, she correctly predicted that it would eventually develop into a prosperous area. “I liked being on Montrose Boulevard, and I thought in the future it would be a very good area,” she said. “I wanted to be on a main street. And I was right.”
On December 31, after running the popular restaurant for almost 34 years—often working 17 hours a day, six days a week—Soodjai will lock up the restaurant for the final time and head into a well-deserved retirement. After an Alaskan cruise with her friends and family, she plans to sell her Houston house and move back to Thailand.
Fortunately for Houston gourmands, Khun Kay isn’t going anywhere. Soodjai and Yooto have sold the restaurant to a former employee, Tanawat Sumrith, who plans to keep everything exactly the same. “I feel pretty good because Tanawat worked here before, and we’ve known each other for a long, long time,” Soodjai said. “He knows all my recipes.”
Khun Kay Thai Cafe. 1209 Montrose Blvd. 713-524-9614. khunkaythaicafe.com.