STATE COLLEGE — Suksan Ruangpattana only has a few minutes to turn ribbony white noodles into the pad Thai dish that’s among the most popular he makes.
So he adds the noodles, then spices and shrimp and veggies to the wok, and, using a spatula to keep it all moving as flames shoot out around the sides, quickly sautés them to perfection.
When it comes to Thai cooking, Ruangpattana said, timing is the key. That’s true not only for the food but also for the restaurant Ruangpattana and his wife, Peeranee Musigchai, both 33, run in State College.
The doors to Cozy Thai Bistro opened about three and a half years ago on East College Avenue. The couple, natives of Thailand, found that with only room for 60, the aptly named restaurant would quickly fill up. So, in November, they reopened Cozy Thai at 232 S. Allen St. in a new location across from the State College borough offices. It seats 130.
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“It’s always been my dream to have a restaurant,” Ruangpattana said.
His interest in food and cooking started when, growing up in Udon Thani in northeast Thailand, he would see his mother and aunts cooking four or five dishes for lunch and dinner every day. The family, including Ruangpattana, the youngest of five children, would sit down and share the dishes.
“I always spent a lot of time in the kitchen when I was a kid,” he said.
That child’s fascination with cooking stayed with him. After earning a bachelor’s degree in finance at Arizona State University, Ruangpattana went to the Art Institute of Colorado in Denver to become a chef. He worked at a Hard Rock Hotel in Thailand before he and Musigchai decided to return to the United States to earn master’s degrees in hotel and restaurant management.
It was while studying at Penn State that the two started talking about opening a restaurant in town. One of the things they had noted was the lack of an exclusively Thai restaurant in State College.
“We have seen a lot of Thai restaurants in the bigger cities, so we wanted to bring it here,” Musigchai said.
With help from their professors, they completed a feasibility study that helped them find out whether their idea was really viable. It was, and they opened Cozy Thai on East College Avenue.
Along with international food, the restaurant has a cosmopolitan ambiance. An artist from New York painted the orange, red and black mural that fills a wall. With ceramic tile flooring and lots of windows, the restaurant has a casual sophistication while keeping its coziness.
Ruangpattana said the food on the menu is what a diner would find in Thailand. Along with him, about five chefs, all from Thailand, make the food every day. Thai cooking, he said, is a combination of seemingly contradictory flavors, so one dish can be both sweet and sour or spicy and sweet.
That’s true in a dish like barbecue chicken with papaya salad. The drunken noodles are popular, as is the cod chu chi — cod mixed with red curry, herbs and vegetables.Fresh herbs, such as lime leaf, are key ingredients, but not always easy to get.
“We use that a lot in Thai cooking,” Ruangpattana said. “It’s like butter.”
Before they opened the doors to the restaurant, they weren’t sure if the flavors of Thai food would be well-received. But the business took off quickly.
Ruangpattana brings the expertise of cooking and running a kitchen to the restaurant. Musigchai, who runs the front end of the restaurant, brings her business background. Along with the master’s from Penn State, she has an undergraduate degree in economics and was general manager of the hotel her family owns in Thailand. Musigchai said her dream growing up was to be a business owner — to see something that she created grow.
“Both of us come from entrepreneurial families,” she said.
That business spirit has already taken hold in another project. Ruangpattana and Musigchai’s next grand opening was in the works when Good Life went to press. Tana Asian Café, a restaurant offering Asian food from different countries at the East College Avenue location that had been home to Cozy Thai, is slated to open in the early part of the year.