Finding luck in Thai cuisine
The Lucky Elephant: A gold mine in San Dimas.
by Mark Vidal
photography by Courtney Droke
Imagine a meal with the Gods of Siam. Decorated elephants hold count in a space filled with the aroma of rich flavor from Thailand. The enchanting rhythms of Thailand captivate the ear, while visitors enjoy a glass of sweet Thai Iced Tea. All are seated beneath a teak wood-carved roof deck.
A gentlemen dressed in a purple silk shirt offers a plate of golden brown shrimp donuts. If guests of the Lucky Elephant forget they are in the middle of San Dimas even for a minute, Nick Boonyanant, co-owner, knows he has done his job.
Since the beginning, the goal has always been to bring the culture and authenticity of his native country to the local community. “People who live here know Chinese, Japanese and Italian [food], but many don’t know about Thai, so that’s why I bring them a piece of Thailand,” Nick cheerfully boasts as he points to Thailand travel brochures on the counter near the entrance.
A video depicting the people, culture and beautiful landscapes of Thailand continuously plays on a plasma screen at the dining room center. Although the concept of the Lucky Elephant is to bring Thailand to the people, it offers enough Thai teasers to entice guests to plan their next vacation to the beautiful country.
Offering more than simply Thai cuisine, Lucky Elephant is a gift shop complete with original souvenirs imported directly from Thailand. Everything from miniature tea sets, to elephant shirts and ties to handbags can be found for sale in the modest little gift shop — all at reasonable prices.
This sort of dining experience — rich in culture and art — is exactly what Nick envisioned from the start, along with business partner and wife, Pat Kanchana.
Pat is the owner of the Lucky Elephant. She previously owned and operated another restaurant in Covina called River Kwai Thai Cusine. Currently, Kanchana works as a full-time nurse, while Nick manages the restaurant. “He does a good job,” Pat says with a large smile. “I just stop by once in a while for moral support.” And it seems as though she chose the right man for the job. Nick worked in the hotel and restaurant business in Thailand for 25 years and owned his own restaurant in Tampa, Fla., for 10 years. But it took Nick and Pat to meet, fall in love and marry six years ago for them to eventually concoct what has today become a testimony of Thai restaurant success. However, the success story of the Lucky Elephant is not due to simply luck; strategic planning and dedication was a primary ingredient.
Several months before the Lucky Elephant opened its doors in September 2005, Nick began putting his artistic vision on paper. He developed the blueprints himself, which included the circular indoor roof deck made of tropical hardwood teak wood from southeast Asia, six even rows of tables and booths, and a petite bar in the rear center. Every chiseled artifact along the walls reveals hours of a skilled hand at work. Joking that it was he himself who spent hours carving all the wooden structures in the dining room, Nick describes how he took all the indoor measurements and traveled to Northern Thailand, where craftsmen sculpt and carve wood for a living.
It was there that current window borders and wall mountings were custom made before being shipped to their final destination in San Dimas. “You come here to enjoy everything Thailand; I want you to sit in Thailand,” Nick adamantly shares. It was important to him that every little detail of the restaurant reveals an authentic tie to Thailand, which goes for every piece of china used, and every hand that serves the food.
The Lucky Elephant is a regular family affair with seven waiters and waitresses, two appetizer preps, two stir-fry cooks and a single chef — all blood related or marriage related — and all of course, from Thailand. Chef Pim Kanchana is the sister of Pat and is partly responsible for the loyal cliental of the Lucky Elephant. She is the inventor of shrimp donuts, the most popular appetizer offered.
Four large golden brown shrimp donuts come served on a plate with a sweet dipping sauce, essential for the perfect bite every time. A single purple flower accents the corner of the dish along with slices of cabbage. “People come here specifically for the shrimp donuts; they cannot miss them,” Nick shares. People come from all over to experience popular favorites such as the Pad Thai, which offers chewy rice noodles sautéed with chicken, shrimp, egg and bean sprouts topped with flavorful ground peanuts. Another favorite is the Two Friend Garlic Sauce, which contains broiled jumbo shrimp and chicken with sautéed mixed vegetables, and tender asparagus in brown garlic sauce.
As no Thai cuisine menu is complete without its curry selection, the Lucky Elephant offers Panang, which includes your choice of chicken, pork or beef with red peanut curry paste and coconut milk. The chef tailors the level of spice to every guest’s desire. Any one of their popular Thai Ice Teas or Thai Iced Coffees makes an excellent contribution to a delicious Thai meal.
Every dish is finely assembled, many offering a hand-carved butterfly made out of pure carrot. All servers at the Lucky Elephant know how to sculpt a butterfly in a matter of seconds. Sanan Churebandit, a server at Lucky Elephant, says it took him five minutes to learn.
The Lucky Elephant also has a generous selection of original desserts. A secret, yet popular dessert not offered on the menu is their fried ice cream featuring a thin fried crust over smooth vanilla ice cream finished with chocolate swirls and a cherry on top.
“We eat here at least once a month, sometimes more,” says Cari Carlesso of Covina. “We’ve been to many Thai restaurants in Santa Monica and around Pasadena, and this place is by far the best. The food is amazing. The décor is amazing.” Carlesso came to celebrate her father’s 80th birthday with friends and family and says every time she comes in, Alex takes good care of her.
“He’s the nicest person,” Carlesso says. “He knows everybody, and everybody knows his name,” Nick says about his nephew, Alex Vilaiwan, who has worked at Lucky Elephant as a server since the very beginning.
The Lucky Elephant is an ideal place to bring your date, a special friend and your whole family to enjoy real authentic food. The lunch special menu is offered between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. everyday and features 16 dishes for $6.95, all of which include the soup of the day, salad, eggroll and jasmine steamed rice, with the exception of the Pad Thai.
Lucky Elephant sits hidden behind Red Robin in a shopping center off the corner of Arrow Highway and Bonita, and while Nick hopes to generate better signage that is visible off the streets, customers are not exactly a scarcity. “We have regular customers who come back over and over who tell their friends, and their friends come back over and over,” Nick says, proudly looking over to his wife.
Nick says he named the restaurant the Lucky Elephant because, for hundreds of years, elephants have been a lucky symbol to the people of Thailand. “The elephant is smart. It is close to the people and is very helpful,” Nick says as he explains how the people of Thailand would ride elephants when fighting in battles.
The local community can consider itself lucky to live near a restaurant offering superb Thai cuisine and Thai culture.
The Lucky Elephant is located at 531 W. Arrow Highway, San Dimas, 909-594-4242.