For years, when diners lined up in front of U District restaurant Thai Tom, they knew they were about to have a memorable experience even outside of what they would eat. Chef and owner Tom Suanpirintra moved with the grace of a dancer when cooking, his long black hair tied up in a bun, silver jewelry dangling from his neck and wrists. Everything in the tight kitchen aided the economy of movement. From the oil, to the spices, to the vegetables and meats, all ingredients needed to be in precise physical alignment as Suanpirintra worked for as long as 11 hours in a stretch. If the chef needed a brief break, his staff would stop the entire production before heating the stove up again.
The fire would jump out of a pan, and then “people would get the best meals of their lives,” says former Thai Tom cook Travis Holley.
The restaurant’s family, friends, and longtime customers are now mourning the death of such a beloved artist. On May 11, the day before his 55th birthday, Tom Suanpirintra passed away suddenly, leaving behind a legacy of wonderful Thai food, a generous spirit, and an unmissable presence on University Way. Thai Tom forges on, run by Suanpirintra’s well-trained successors, but the kinetic culinary energy the chef brought to the neighborhood will be sorely missed.
Hospitality had always been part of Suanpirintra’s history. After his family emigrated to the U.S. from Thailand, they settled in Hollywood and ran four bars, including one on Sunset Boulevard, where a young Suanpirintra swept the floors. When the family moved to Seattle, his mom Lisa Suanpirintra Ruhl opened Bellevue’s Thai Kitchen in 1981, which has been credited as one of the first restaurants to introduce Thai food to the Pacific Northwest.
Suanpirintra graduated from Interlake High School in Bellevue and studied to be an airplane mechanic. But his passion for cooking and family’s dining heritage proved to be a powerful pull — and he founded Thai Tom in 1994. Located steps from the University of Washington campus, the restaurant quickly built a following for its incredible pad thai and swimming rama at affordable prices (less than $5 per plate at the time). Crowds of young people packed into the small 26-seat dining room to enjoy the intense spice levels, while enduring the waves of heat emanating from the open kitchen.
“As a high schooler in Puyallup I would sneak up to Seattle to get a bite,” says Daniel Baldridge, who is engaged to Suanpirintra’s niece, Praew. “It was unlike anything I’d ever had in the suburbs. The long lines, the four-foot flame that singed your eyebrows when you finally got a seat, then that steamy, perfectly charred plate of noodles presented to you by the chef himself.” As Thai Tom won over locals, it landed on Seattle critics’ lists of favorite Thai places around town. “Tom Suanpirintra knows what he’s doing — he just does it at lightning speed,” wrote Seattle Met.
In addition to the restaurant, Suanpirintra was a real estate investor, car collector, and dedicated animal lover, who owned and operated a dog shelter in Thailand. But food was always his primary form of expression, and his dedication to the profession went beyond the dollar. “We would not close if there were people who wanted to eat,” says Holley. “We were there to serve people … and while we made money, it was in a way that was honest and pure and charismatic, offering so much more in value.”
“Chef Tom is a legend of Thai food industry. He always welcomed newcomers and trained them how to cook Thai food with passion,” says Mark and Picha Pinkanow, co-owners of fellow U District restaurant Mark Thai Food Box. “So many of them have gone out to open their own Thai restaurants all over Seattle. We’re very sad over Chef Tom’s passing. Thank you for being a role model for us. May your soul rest in peace and may peace be with you all.”
Suanpirintra is survived by his wife, Junya, his four younger sisters Tammy, Lisa, Cindy, and Jenny, his nieces and nephews Celina, Praew, Prueth, Conner, Ploy, Cierra, Brody, Siam, Pete, as well as the friends and extended Thai Tom family. “Although Tom is gone now, we are so lucky that his spirit is alive and well,” says Baldridge.