The Lee family - Soua, May, Taag and David - are grateful for the warm reception they've received since opening Savory Thai in south Lakeland on March 31. | Courtesy of the Lee family

A new Thai restaurant is bringing exotic flavors to south Lakeland. Savory Thai is located in the Highland City Town Center shopping complex at the intersection of Bartow and Clubhouse Roads, not far from Polk State College’s Lakeland campus.

The family-run eatery opened Mar. 31. The owners are David Lee, 37, his wife Taag Lee, 35, and David’s mother, May Lee, 53.

“It has always been a dream of (my mom and mine) to open up a restaurant since we both love to cook and be in the kitchen,” said David Lee. “Whether it’s for a special event or just hanging out with family and friends, we enjoy cooking up something special for everyone to enjoy.”

The family matriarch is a refugee, belonging to the Hmong ethnic group. At 5 years old, May and her family fled Laos to Thailand to avoid persecution and communism after the Vietnam War, David Lee explained. When she turned 8, her family moved to Petoskey, Michigan, with sponsorship from a Presbyterian church.

May Lee grew up in northern Michigan near the Wisconsin border where met her husband, Soua, who also often helps out around the restaurant. David was born in Fresno, California, but he was raised in Saginaw, Michigan. David’s wife Taag is from Pontiac, Michigan.

“We are ordinary people looking to make our dreams become reality,” David said.

He explained that May, a mother of five grown children, left her career as a registered nurse after multiple rotator cuff surgeries. May's husband Soua worked at General Motors for many years, but left the corporate world to enjoy retirement in the Sunshine State.

David and Taag also have five children and also left white-collar jobs in Michigan to chase their dreams with the support of their family.

He said they chose to open Savory Thai in the south Lakeland/Highland City area because of its proximity to Lakeland, Bartow, Mulberry and Winter Haven.

“The area surrounding Clubhouse Road and U.S. 98 South is growing and seems pretty diverse from what we can see and experience,” David said. “We are excited to introduce Thai cuisine to this community.”

“We like to keep all our Thai recipes as authentic as possible and not cater too much to the Western palate.”

David Lee, co-owner of savory thai

David said he and his wife currently live in Fort Meade but plan to move to Lakeland.

“The response from the community has been nothing but supportive. From the local communities, visitors to Florida, and customers driving from as far as Tampa and Orlando just to try our food, everyone has shown so much love and support. The reviews and feedback we've received on all platforms, which we read after a long day of work, just puts the energy back in us to do it all over again the next day,” he said.

He added that Facebook groups like Hmong Florida, Lakeland Food Group, and Polk County Restaurants and Reviews have been helpful in attracting customers. Some of the challenges they’ve faced since opening include developing a backup plan for unexpected delays in deliveries of food products.

“Our biggest challenge is making sure we meet our customers’ expectations by listening to their feedback and reviews and then building a relationship with each and every one that walks through the door,” David said.

He is proud they are able to offer authentic Thai food that is the “perfect blend of sweet, salty, sour, coconutty and spice.”

“Every dish is cooked to order, so it may take a bit longer to get each dish out but it's made fresh and spiced according to how our customer requested (their) spice level,” he said.

Some of the most popular offerings at Savory Thai. | Provided photo

Pad Thai, drunken noodles, savory Thai fried rice, and pepper steak with white rice are some of their most popular dishes. David said his favorite meal is the Thai hot version of red curry with chicken.

The restaurant’s most popular drinks include the coconut-flavored smoothie with coconut jellies, traditional boba with tapioca pearls, Thai tea and Thai coffee.

The family develops its recipes mostly from experimentation, but they also consider customers’ criticism and feedback.

“We like to keep all our Thai recipes as authentic as possible and not cater too much to the Western palate. Also, many Asian restaurants are known for blanching their noodles and vegetables prior to throwing it in the wok and sauce in order to get the food out quicker. We believe in cooking our food the right way by not blanching,” he said. “Our mentors are our family that are in the Thai restaurant industry and have been cooking Thai food for a long time.”

Savory Thai recently added delivery services such as GrubHub, UberEats and DoorDash to its offerings.

One of the family’s goals is to share Asian culture with the community.

“Most of the southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar all have similar dishes but with different names so (it is) our inspiration to share the great taste of Asian cuisine with the community,” David said.

They’ve started to introduce some of these dishes as specials on Saturdays. Among the dishes they’ve featured are Khau Poon, which is vermicelli noodles with chicken curry broth, and Lod Song, a dessert from Laos.

“The feedback was very positive. In the near future, we plan to introduce some Hmong comfort dishes like baked chicken wings with purple sticky rice and stuffed chicken wings,” he said. “We also plan to offer some Asian fusion dishes such as bao buns with a variety of stuffings.”

The advice he gives to others hoping to open a restaurant is to be prepared to make sacrifices, be physically fit to deal with the stress of working long hours, and “find mentors you can trust to show and tell you the ins and outs of being a business owner from accounting and bookkeeping to taxes, etc.”

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for Jazbablog. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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