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Thai Issan in Petaluma changes gears

Traditional Thai eatery remakes itself as a hip after-hours hangout.

By Carey Sweet

Thai Issan general manager Samantha Xiong steps into the foyer of her new bar to confirm that, despite all appearances, her 10-year-old landmark Petaluma restaurant isn't closed.

It was closed, she explains, for a few weeks a while back and has been under extensive renovation for the past two months. Witness the bar we're standing in, where the hostess stand used to be, and the full liquor license she anticipates receiving any day now to supplement her wine and beer service. Samantha nods at the new DJ booth tucked by the front door and points to the bright teal, magenta and cocoa-colored paint that covers the walls, which have also been brightened with big, new windows. It'll be a much more exciting Thai Issan than diners have been used to, she promises, if city officials will let her pull it off, with food service until 2am and music until 3am on the weekends.

"As the night goes on, we'll play louder, faster house music," Samantha smiles. "I'll be the bartender—I make a mean kiwi mint mojito." She pulls out another new addition to the drink menu, a clever little bottle of Hou Hou Shu and uncorks it for me to sample: it's a delightful sparkling sake, packaged and tasting like Champagne.

Dressed head to toe in black replete with leather boots and smoky eyeliner to complement her long, straight black hair, Samantha seems a bit out-of-place in an eatery with a tinkling waterfall in the corner and soft Asian acoustic music babbling in the background. But it's all part of a rebirth of the restaurant, founded by her parents, Toua and Bounleuth Xiong, and now under her control.

The new concept has been a lot for her parents to swallow, Samantha says, but she's got a strong vision after returning from a short-lived venture with Petaluma's defunct River House. "I've battled with them as far as music goes, but we need to change."

Handwritten notes stuck to surfaces all around us warn of wet paint, but an area that used to be a dark, underused banquet space already has been turned into a lovely dining room, featuring traditional Thai seating (on cushions on the floor at low tables with billowing white curtains and carved wood quarter walls offering a bit of privacy). This will be the area that Samantha envisions will get the young crowd hanging out at communal tables.

Happily, little is changing with the menu, still under the talent of Samantha's mother, Bounleuth. Sure, sushi may be offered, but there will still be the delicious, meaty chicken wings in sweet-sour tamarind sauce, the baskets of sticky rice for us to eat with our fingers, velvety pumpkin curry and deep fried whole ginger trout.

The temporary shutdown has been confusing customers, Samantha sighs; they've been suggesting she invest in neon signs outside. The stark concrete building is in a terrific location, on the northeast corner of Washington and Petaluma Boulevard North, but to the unsavvy, the place looks a little bit condemned. "They should say 'Open,' in bright letters," she agrees. "One on each corner, so everyone can see as they drive by."

Thai Issan

Address: 208 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

Phone: 707.762.5966

Hours: Open for lunch, Monday–Friday and Sunday; dinner nightly.

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