One of Little Rock’s best restaurants serves authentic Thai food made by a white guy from North Louisiana who’s spent the majority of his professional career practicing law. There’s no sign in front of kBird to announce itself to passersby — not that anyone would pass by an otherwise residential stretch of western Hillcrest in search of a restaurant. The building once housed a general store and several other eateries, but with clapboard siding and a fenced-in backyard, it still looks more like a house than a restaurant. Look closely and you might see an open sign — if it’s lunchtime on a weekday or a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday evening — and a painting of a flock of chickens on the front door.
Inside, you’ll find mismatched tables and chairs, a parquet floor that, like many of the homes in Hillcrest, tilts noticeably and is held together by duct tape in spots. On one wall, someone has handwritten a Mark Twain quote in marker — “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” — under a map of Thailand with a hand-drawn rendering of the Malay Peninsula taped to the bottom of it. A handful of people work in an open kitchen — chopping, grinding out curry paste with a giant mortar and pestle, or working the stockpots and woks on the stove. The lanky guy — a flurry of motion — with glasses and tattoo of a large black bird (a Mississippi kite) peeking out from under his T-shirt is Richard Glasgow, the corporate lawyer turned Thai cultural evangelist.
Glasgow treats Thai food with reverence. He’s assiduous in his devotion to making it like they do in Thailand. That means always finding the best and correct ingredients — never substituting onions for shallots, brown sugar for palm sugar or ginger for galangal. It means finding flavoring agents like dok ngiew, the dried flower stamens of the red cotton tree. It means pad Thai with Chinese broccoli, longbeans and kabocha squash and no sweet peanut sauce. It means curries with enough layers of flavor to suggest mystical powers.
Some of that deliciousness might owe to the fact that kBird’s curry paste gets made every day with all the ingredients mashed together with a mortar and pestle, which takes about an hour and a half. There are no electrical appliances, aside from a fridge and deep freeze, to be found in the restaurant, even though a food processor could knock out the paste in seconds.
Brandon Brown, who owned the late, beloved Hillcrest Artisan Meats and is a longtime friend of Glasgow’s, has worked in the kBird kitchen for the past eight months. He said he’s spent time working in nice places that made a lot of things by hand over the course of his more than 30 years in the restaurant business, but never to the extent on which Glasgow insists. “Every day I tell him to get a fucking Cuisinart and a spice grinder,” Brown said. But Glasgow refuses to take shortcuts. Doing so, “for a white person making Thai food, would be disrespectful,” he said. Besides, he says, a food processor slices ingredients into tiny pieces; using a mortar and pestle to pulverize ingredients causes them to bind together to create more flavor. “It’s very incrementally better, but better,” he said. “Hard fucking work and paying attention” is one of his mottos. (That’s a Guy Clark quote about legendary Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s genius: “Everybody thought it was magic. That’s bullshit. It was hard fucking work and paying attention.”)
Before he started kBird, which began as a food trailer, Glasgow worked as a lawyer for Dillard’s. It was a dark time for him. He bottomed out, to the point that leaving the corporate world to sling Thai food out of a trailer hidden in an alley in Hillcrest seemed perfectly reasonable. That was 2012.
Glasgow said he initially hid for two reasons: 1. As a white guy endeavoring to cook Thai standards like a grandma might in Thailand, he wanted to make sure that people came to him because they’d heard good things about the food, not because they’d seen a sign or seen a social media post. 2. He was scared he’d get overwhelmed and freak out and run away if too many people came. That plan worked out. He turned customers into evangelists themselves. The food truck now gathers cobwebs behind the restaurant, which opened in late 2014 at the corner of Tyler and Woodlawn streets. It’s not unusual to drive by kBird a little after 1 p.m. and see a “sold out” sign in the window.
In 2015, Glasgow hosted his first khantoke, a reservation-only dinner featuring more than a dozen Northern Thai dishes that aren’t on the menu. Each year since, he’s increased the number of khantokes he hosts. In 2016, he hosted six, then nine in 2017 and he plans to do 10 in 2018. Each dinner accommodates 30-40 people. Glasgow takes reservations for three khantokes at a time. In an effort to be as fair as he can in the process, he requires people to make their reservations at 2 p.m. on a designated day. In May, on the day reservations were due for the three khantokes scheduled for the first half of the summer, the nearly 100 spaces were filled by 2:07 p.m.
‘How I’m Learning to Stop Worrying and Cook Thai Food’
Glasgow grew up in Ruston and Oak Ridge, La. (he says he claims “dual citizenship”), among a family of farmers and cooks. He got an economics degree from Louisiana State University, spent nearly a decade working for a title company in Washington, D.C., and then got a law degree from Catholic University in D.C. In 2001, he and his wife, Aimée, who he met in D.C. but who is from Monroe (or “Mun-row,” as Glasgow says), La., saved up enough money to travel around the world. They spent two months in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and fell in love with the region.
“It’s like a bizarro-world American South,” Glasgow said of Thailand. “The same veneer of civilization exists. You wave at everyone; they wave back. You smile at someone; they smile at you. You’re constantly rewarded for being nice. You say ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and let older people out in front of you. If you try to speak Thai and you’re horrible at it, people will tell you you’re great. It’s the same small-town kind of stuff, but just a different world. … You ever been somewhere where you felt like you belonged, but you didn’t really belong, but you were treated like you belong? It’s like that.”
Glasgow sees a deep connection between Thailand and his native Louisiana. He calls it his unified theory. There are distinctive regions in Thailand, just like Louisiana. Northern Thailand is just like North Louisiana, he said. It’s full of rednecks, which Glasgow identifies as. “They’re pork, pork, pork. They fry in lard and eat pork rinds in sauces.” The people in Northeastern Thailand are “ethnically Lao, they speak Lao, but live in Thailand. They eat the hottest food. They’re the poorest. They eat bugs, snakes, crickets. They have the most fun and are great partiers. They’re the Cajuns.” Central Thailand, the broad alluvial plain of the Chao Phraya River, where the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom was based for thousands of years, produces two rice crops every year. It’s Baton Rouge in Glasgow’s telling. Bangkok, the country’s capital, sits mostly on former swampland. The Chao Phraya River runs through the city before emptying into the Gulf of Thailand. It’s, of course, New Orleans. Southern Thailand on the narrow Kra Isthmus is like Grand Isle, La., the narrow barrier island in South Louisiana.
When the Glasgows started thinking about having kids, they picked Little Rock, a place about which they knew little, because it was closer to home, but not too close. They had a daughter, who’s now 11. Her nickname is kBird.
After working for a couple of years in private practice, Glasgow spent five years at Dillard’s. That company is “as much to thank for the existence of kBird than just about anybody,” Glasgow said. After spending that much time in the business world, the idea of kBird was a thumb of the nose toward the corporate and restaurant establishment and conventional notions on how one starts and runs a restaurant: “You’ve got to have a bunch of money to open a restaurant. You gotta have a wait staff. You need to advertise. Those are all reasonable things, but,” Glasgow said, that route “wouldn’t have been me.”
Instead, if fine dining is arena rock, a genre associated with bands in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that brought big stage shows to large arenas, kBird is punk rock, Glasgow said. In his metaphor, with arena rock (fine dining), “you gotta have a big ol’ band and have a loud sound, and it’s gotta look good from a long way away.” That all costs a lot, and means, among other things, expensive rent and a large staff, which translates into higher prices for the concertgoer or diner. “Punk came as a reaction” to that, Glasgow said. D. Boon from the punk band Minutemen said, “Our band could be your life.” “They said, ‘Start your own band,’ ” Glasgow said. “That’s what I did. It just wasn’t a band; it was a restaurant.”
Glasgow describes kBird as “egalitarian — everybody gets the same plate of food. It’s reasonably priced. It’s a lot of food. Ingredients are way better than what you’d expect they are. Some audience participation is required.” That means customers order at the counter that divides the dining room from the open kitchen. Though Glasgow and his staff are humping it, sometimes it takes a bit for your order to come up. The hours — 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on weekdays and 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday — aren’t designed for peak dining-out times; they’re what Glasgow can do while still spending time with his family and not working himself to the ground. Though he concedes he’s “a control freak,” the idea of delegating to others to run the restaurant when he’s not there doesn’t appeal to him. “I didn’t quit a pretty well-paying job to start something out of absolute nothing to bring it where it is to not be here.”
The other unique thing about kBird is that it closes for about a month from mid-January to mid-February for Glasgow to travel to Thailand. He’s been seven times since 2001. He visits the Naan province in Northern Thailand, where he’s made a number of friends over the years. His itinerary is to “not walk fast, talk to little old ladies and laugh,” he said. He also cooks a lot and watches people cook. Last year, Glasgow got to be one of the first farang (white people) to stay overnight in a remote Northern Thailand village thanks to a Thai friend who works in tourism. Several years back, during one of his trips, Glasgow went to the market one morning to buy supplies for breakfast. He’s somewhat conversant in Thai. When he was paying, he said he told a woman selling groceries at a booth, ” ‘Today, I’m making rice curry.’ She said, ‘No pay.’ It was like, ‘You understand this; you can have it.’ That’s why I’m so excited and excitable [about Thai food and culture], and also why I’m so very worried about not being respectful. I want to do right by these people. It’s not a question of my integrity. These people changed my life. I’ve learned so much about myself and my life in this adventure.” If his life were a movie, in a nod to “Dr. Strangelove,” Glasgow joked it might be called “How I’m Learning to Stop Worrying and Make Thai Food.”
“All of this is an effort to become integrated into Thai culture, so I’ll begin to understand their mindset and somehow it will rub off on me.”
On his left arm, Glasgow has the phrase “baaw bpen yang” tattooed in Thai letters. It’s a country dialect version of a common Thai phrase, mai bpen rai. “In Thailand, it means everything from ‘you’re welcome’ to ‘I forgive you for your actions.’ It goes all the way across the board. If you’re in an embarrassing situation or you’ve fucked up, more often than not, the Thai person will look at you and say, ‘mai bpen rai.’ It means it doesn’t matter, what are we going to do about it now? A car wreck? Spilling some lady’s stuff? Mai bpen rai. It doesn’t matter. I grew up in a house where everything mattered. To have a group of people say, don’t worry about it — for me, excited and anxious all the time — when another person tells you that, it means a lot.” Glasgow says baaw bpen yang identifies him with the country people of Northern Thailand. “It’s the ‘it’s all good, y’all’ version.”
That’s not to say that philosophy has fully taken root. “Fear and anxiety” have always fueled kBird. Though he concedes that, based on the restaurant’s growth, “an objective person would say, ‘You’re probably going to be able to continue to do business,’ ” he says he’s still “scared to say something like that out loud.” Every Monday, he remains a nervous wreck, fretting that no one will darken his door that week.
He knows he could do more business being open even for lunch on Saturday, but that would get in the way of one of the highlights of his week: shopping at Sam’s Oriental Store every Saturday morning. The venerable Asian grocery on South University Avenue is teeming with essential items for all sorts of far-flung cultures that make the market, especially on Saturdays, when a new shipment of produce arrives from Dallas, as diverse of a gathering place as you’ll find in Little Rock. On a Saturday in early June, Glasgow talked to or stood in line with Hmong, Viet, Korean and Filipino people. An African priest had traveled several hours for fufu powder. The owner of La Bodeguita in Hot Springs was there, making his weekly stop to buy mangoes. Jose, a longtime Salvadoran employee, greeted Glasgow: “Hey, Rich-ee.”
Glasgow’s list was long and different from usual because the second khantoke of the year was happening later that day. Among the items on his list that you’re probably not going to find at Kroger: galangal (in the ginger family), banana leaves, Chinese broccoli, Kaffir lime leaves, kombucha squash (aka Japanese pumpkin), water spinach, quail eggs and pig’s blood. Amid his shopping, Glasgow stopped to show the owner, Sam Choi, a picture on his phone of a maeng da, a giant water bug that’s commonly used as a flavoring agent in nam phrik sauces. It’s sold around the world packaged in plastic. Choi was sure he could get them.
The khantoke dinners give Glasgow a chance to cook Northern Thai dishes that otherwise would not appear on the menu, aside from a special here and there. For this dinner, Glasgow and Co. started preparing almost a week earlier, boiling and scraping fat off pig skin and dehydrating it to get it ready to be turned into pork rinds and crackling. Sour pork (naem heung) spent days fermenting in the sun; it’s tasty and safe enough to eat that Glasgow and a reporter take bites after it’s finished fermenting, but hours before the dinner, it gets steamed in banana leaves on the grill to make doubly sure it’s ready. Brown doesn’t work on weekends, but the other full-time staff, Chris and Jessica Shippey, come in around midday to help with prep. So does Joe Sithong, a friend with a catering background who volunteers his services. His father was Lao, but he died when Sithong was young. “I have all the cravings, but none of the culture,” he said. Cooking and eating Thai food “is almost like church,” he said. “It’s satisfying and makes you feel better about yourself.”
He mashed roasted green chili peppers, shallots and garlic in a mortar and pestle to make nahm phrik noom, a popular Northern Thailand dip that pairs with pork rinds and other meats. Meanwhile, Glasgow chopped up 12 pounds of river catfish Sithong picked up from Love’s Fish Market on John Barrow Road. “I grew up trotlining,” Glasgow said. “I’ve been knowing about this a lot longer than I’ve been knowing about Thai food.” The fish goes outside into a giant gas cooker filled with oil — “way more than anyone would ever tell you to put in at one time.” There’s so much water in the fish that has to evaporate, and the frying takes almost an hour.
Five hours later, the feast is prepared and plated and the lucky dozens start filing in with bottles of wine in tow (it’s B.Y.O.B; kBird’s zoning prevents it from selling alcohol). Glasgow offers some quick greetings in Thai and explains what all the food is before retreating to the kitchen for beer. He’ll need one and a half and prodding from Sithong before he can go mingle and answer questions.
The diners consider the feast with big eyes and big smiles. Glasgow encourages everyone to pull out their phones when the full spread is on the table and then it all gets passed family-style. There’s the equivalent of about three meal-sized portions per person on the table: Sticky rice, which is steamed in woven baskets, rather than boiled. A vegetable plate with steamed pumpkin, bok choy and chayote squash and fresh cabbage, Chinese broccoli, chives, long bean, cucumber and water spinach. A meat plate with the steamed and fermented pork, the pork rinds and cracklings, fried chicken wings and muu thaawt makhwaen, fried strips of pork loin seasoned with makhwaen seeds from the prickly ash tree. Two chili dips, the green chili dip Sithong made and nahm phrik ong, a pork, tomato and chili combination that Thai folks often eat with vegetables. Two salads — one a smoky grilled eggplant topped with steamed quail eggs and the other fried catfish topped with fried basil and lime leaves. Then there’s a bowl of hanglae pork curry with ginger and peanuts and a pork rib curry made with pork blood and dok ngiew, the dried flower stamens of the red cotton tree. A tower of steamed rice with pork and pork blood tastes a lot like rice with boudin rouge, Glasgow tells the crowd in case anyone knows about the Cajun delicacy. For dessert, there’s coconut milk custard cooked in a tiny Asian pumpkin and a sticky rice cake topped with palm sugar caramel.
Glasgow has regulars from Thailand. One invited friends from Northern Thailand who live in the U.S. to fly in for a khantoke. Glasgow overheard someone ask her if the food was like what she got at home. “She said, ‘Sort of, but with all this stuff, it’s like a double birthday!” He took that as a high compliment.
But he’s quick to deflect praise for the food. “I didn’t make any of this up. This ain’t mine. To the extent I can take what people make in Thailand and make it here, I’m good at that. I’m not a chef.” If he has a skill, it’s as a “food Xerox,” he said. “I have a really good taste memory. I’m able to eat something and fix it in my mind and replicate it.”
Going from the corporate world to opening and running kBird has been a journey, he said. Does he feel like he’s arrived? “No, but I feel like I’m a lot closer than I was. I’m now in a position to get there. There’s a lot of self-doubt that takes years to build up. There’s an episode of ‘The Simpsons,’ where at some point Homer does something really great and nice and makes himself look good. And Bart looks at Lisa and goes, ‘I’ve got this really strange feeling.’ And she goes, ‘Pride?’ I’m still at that point. I don’t ever want to be there. I don’t think you’re ever going to be there. That’s a metaphysical question. I don’t think you’re ever going to be there. That’s the answer to the Big Question. But you can set yourself up to make yourself happier.”