Some of the best Thai food in Jax originated with a woman who left Thailand with a take-no-shit attitude and learned to cook in Saudi Arabia.
About 50 or so years ago, a young military married couple, Rudy and Pikool Clayton found themselves stationed in Saudi Arabia. Pikool was from a beach resort city called Pattaya in the Chonburi province of Thailand. She was homesick for some home-cooked food. In her search for reminders of home, she came across the lone Thai restaurant in the area. Pikool soon began hanging out in the restaurant kitchen while Rudy was at work, and learned to cook food from her home land.
Fast forward to 1979, Rudy and Pikool moved and planted roots in Jacksonville. And in 1989, armed with her recipes, they opened a small Asian grocery store on University Blvd. Pikool ran a restaurant from the back. Word spread about her great Thai food coming from the back of a grocery store and people came from all over Jax to try it. A few seats in the back of the store became tables and more chairs squeezed in for the increasing number of customers showing up. Pikool, or “Mom” as she was affectionately known by customers and friends, became somewhat of a neighborhood legend, known just as much for her bold personality as her bold flavors.
By 1990, they outgrew the storefront and moved into a larger restaurant space on Atlantic Blvd and Pattaya Thai was born. But it wasn’t without risk. When the doors to the new space on Atlantic opened, Rudy and Pikool only had $104.00 in their bank account. It was all or nothing, but they were fearless. They knew they had something special. And just as before, word spread and people came.
But there were other challenges. People see Pikool and think she’s a pushover. Seeing her for the first time, it’s easy to get that impression. She’s a tiny Asian woman, but looks can be deceiving. And as the saying goes, “Dynamite comes in small packages.”
In 2005, Rudy and Pikool’s son, Russ, set out to carry on the tradition of Pattaya Thai with a new location on Baymeadows. He was working with a contractor for the build-out who was, let’s just say, less than honest. After construction had dragged on for far longer than it should, and it was clear the contractor was taking advantage of her son, Pikool finally had enough. She went to the Baymeadows site to have words with this contractor. The contractor, by all accounts, was a big guy, an intimidating presence; probably was able to push other people around on past jobs. But all five-foot-nothing of Pikool stood right up to him and told him how it was going to be, what needed to be done, and how much they were going to pay. There was some “robust dialog” and by the end of it, the contractor was so frightened of what he thought she might do, he called the police. They came, took one look at him and one look at her and basically replied with, “Really?” By the end of it all, things were settled and the contractor did what was right.
Pikool and Rudy are a formidable team and have always refused to be taken advantage of by anyone. And sometimes to make your point and to make sure others see you as an equal, you have to be loud. You have to be shocking. You have to be heard.
The “model minority myth” that’s attributed to Asians; that we’re supposed to assimilate quietly, to keep our heads down, and to not say anything, even if we’re being taken advantage of or abused…well, Pikool never got that memo. She’s fierce and not afraid to speak her mind. She has no formal education and didn’t go to culinary school. She learned from experience. Life was her instructor. She lived her life and didn’t care what anyone thought, which for a Thai woman in a male-dominated Asian culture, is impressive. She was a feminist before it was anything close to mainstream and in a place where it wasn’t appreciated.
Rudy knew he was marrying a strong, independent woman and was secure enough in himself to let her be her and together make a unit that is greater than the sum of their parts.
That tradition continues in Chef Russ Clayton, Rudy and Pikool’s son and the chef/owner of the current iteration of Pattaya Thai located on King St in Riverside. He was by his parents’ side, working in the restaurant since he was 10-years-old, learning everything he needed to be successful. While he may take his personality from the more reserved Rudy, his cooking is all Pikool. Bold, fresh, and in-your-face flavors uncompromising to his roots and his upbringing. And as a result, the Clayton family has built a restaurant dynasty that’s lasted over 30 years.