The Welcoming Shore
Arawan's fresh, exotic food plants its delicate flag on MoCo's culinary map.
Thursday, January 18, 2001
This time of year, while rains and winds rearrange the landscape and drive folks indoors, local businesses--especially those dependent upon tourism--have to tighten their belts, run lean and hope for a big AT&T to help carry them through the winter. Area restaurants are most vulnerable to the ebb and flow of tourist traffic, experiencing wide-ranging fluctuations in revenue throughout the year.
The Monterey Peninsula is one of the toughest restaurant markets anywhere. Outside of a handful of established local favorites, virtually every eatery here owes its living to visitors. There just isn''t a big enough population base to support all the dining establishments that call this place home.
Even during the busy tourist times, location plays a major role. Certain can''t-miss spots along Cannery Row and on Wharf #1 in Monterey provide little solace for hundreds of other harried owners of joints throughout the Monterey area.
In fact, considering that the restaurant business is one of the most difficult types of business to succeed in under the best of circumstances, one wonders why anyone would subject him- or herself to the always grueling and fickle world of restaurant madness.
I think, in some cases, that entrepreneurial types--particularly first generation immigrants--who want to carve a niche for themselves choose to open restaurants. How many ethnic eateries are there that were started by hardworking, driven individuals and couples looking to cash in on the American dream? Without that committed segment of the population, we would be denied access to the wonderfully exotic culinary worlds we regularly frequent.
Personally, I am very thankful for those people. Faced with difficult odds against success--the least of which are communication struggles, cultural acclimatizing and difficulties with the overall business landscape in a strange country (and this is a pretty strange country)--time after time, resilient, resourceful, regular folks hammer away and create themselves a bronze statue.
In case you are not aware of it, restaurants work on one of the slimmest profit margins of any business. When all is said and done, if restaurateurs are making a 15 percent profit, they''re rocking. It doesn''t take a Stephen Hawkings to extrapolate the numbers a dining spot does and determine how much cash it''s producing for the owner.
Cornering the Market
Knowing all of the above and having my touchy mode exacerbated by a blustery, rainy, gray day and a raging head cold, it was with a heavy heart that I, along with my faithful companion and friend Tonto, sat down for a late afternoon meal at Arawan Thai Cafe.
The first, most-obvious stumbling block for these lovely owners is the location. Tucked away in the Court of the Golden Bough, which is in the back of the alleyway alongside Portabella''s on Ocean in Carmel, it is impossible to spot Arawan from the street. Add to that restrictive Carmel signage laws that prohibit any sign from being actually readable, it''s plain to see that Arawan''s struggles have just begun.
Now, there are a host of factors in Arawan''s favor. Firstly, the food is fantastic. Fresh, delicate dishes are right on the mark. This is Thai food the way it''s supposed to be prepared. Arawan''s got the sauces, it''s got the ingredients, it''s got the love--but you''ve got to ask for the fire.
Catering to the wishy-washy American palate, Arawan automatically dumbs down its food, which tastes great--but come on, what''s Thai food without the flames? Ask for it spicy.
The interior is very pretty to look at and be in. On this particular rainy day, we sat alone in soft-hued Thai splendor as dreamy music played and we drifted away into our own cloudy thoughts. Hostess, chef and owner Tina Jensen (a lovely woman with a strong accent pictured above), lovingly commandeered our ride throughout.
Arawan has only been open for a few months. Unfortunately, a late season, winter opening is another huge stumbling block. I hope enough locals discover them to keep the restaurant going until the cavalry--in the form of camera-laden tourists--swoops down to save the day. Hopefully, the Arawan folks will drum up a lively takeout business with all the hotels and inns around their location.
From won ton and tom yum soups through chili salmon and fresh basil and chili chicken, everything was clean, fresh and delightful. A couple of vases of premium sake nicely complemented the meal. Wine and beer are available, along with the usual Thai iced coffees and teas.
The prices reflect the neighborhood and its exorbitant rents, seeming just a tiny bit high for Thai. But considering the quality, the price is well worth it and still a lot cheaper than the meals at other Carmel restaurants.
Another thing Arawan''s got going for it is having a relative corner on the Carmel Thai restaurant market. These people have the only Thai show in town along the golden strip. I would imagine that Carmelites must be hankerin'' for something like downhome Thai food to balance all that California cuisine.
I know I''m gonna keep going back to Arawan, and I''m bringing friends. I would love to see these kind and talented folks make this thing work.
Arawan Thai Cafe is located on Ocean between Lincoln and Monte Verde in Carmel and is open daily from 11am to 9:30pm. For reservations or more info, call 625-4331.