The new Asian-inspired Rice Time Bistro, nestled into that familiar bend on Jefferson Avenue near campus, may have just carved out a long-term home barely a month after opening. The thrill of trying Thai, Korean and Japanese dishes turns into a charming introduction to a clever new business and the local family who owns it.
Although many dishes aren’t pictured on the menus, the descriptions explain very easily and enticingly, whatever your experience level is with far-east food staples. Visitors not very keen on what to expect but possessing a curious palette should expect a variety of easily-understood menu options in popular heat levels, all listed beside the dish names. This ranges from options like Korean rice bowls with kimchi and egg to hot pepper steak with noodles and even hotter, more eccentric dishes like “chili chili” fish. Folks interested in a home-style bowl of Vietnamese Pho noodle soup will find enough choices to make their heads spin.
To say the very least, I ordered a shrimp and pork wonton noodle bowl and was not disappointed at all. The food was fresh (especially the vegetables), contained a thoughtful balance of ingredients like bean sprouts and basil, and the wontons were cooked/filled nicely. Perhaps the most interesting find was the option of several flavors of boba tea, a popular, funky-fresh flavored drink with dark tapioca pearls added to the bottom. If that sounds downright odd, that’s because it is, but it's arguably the neatest thing I’ve ever tried. I was able to get out with my wallet intact, so while this isn’t some $5 lunch box, if you’re looking for an arguably affordable lunch or dinner date, or need a simple change, this is your place.
Inside the snug little wooden-facade building, visitors are immediately greeted by a familiar-like lunch bar. But some things are more interesting to lay eyes on. A wall of colorful Asian snacks and goodies referred to as the “small snack corner” sits just to one’s right upon walking in. The owner of this trendy, remodeled bistro, Chatkamon Srithanyarat (who also goes by “Mod”) is a Thai restaurateur whose family runs Taiko Noodle & Sushi Bar, as well as the popular Royal House of Thai just two blocks away.
“So we opened House of Thai in 2003, then moved it near campus later on. We opened Taiko in 2006- the sushi place,” said Srithanyarat. “Me and my sister, we own House of Thai and Taiko. But here at Rice Time, we brought other people in to help. We have new family members. The idea here is Thai food, but at the same time, fast Thai food. The customer sometimes is busy I understand, so I had an idea that we need to put the business here to catch them when they pass by.”
It seems there was more than one reason Srithanyarat originally scouted the cozy location for this fast-paced spinoff food joint; she's hoping nearby hikers and bikers will take notice.
"We chose here because it's close to campus, but also because it used to be a duplex, and I love that home-style feeling with my decorative ideas to go along with the food. If I can do it, I will do it. I just try to be creative here. I love art," said Srithanyarat.
"Also, the new trail. It will wrap around my place. So it's going to be a good spot so they can stop here along the way and eat," said Srithanyarat of the Tennessee Central Heritage Rail Trail, which will run between Cookeville and Monterey.
Rice Time Bistro was previously Underground Sandwich Shop, and before that I-Noodle, which was owned by Srithanyarat.
“Before all this, we had decided to make it an I-noodle two or three years ago. After that, I had an idea for a place called Rice Time,” said Srithanyarat.
Rice Time Bistro has a wide variety of food choices she designed for the menu.
"We have good food – specials everyday and so every time you step in here, you're going to get something you've never tried before,” said Srithanyarat. “Also, we are the only ones in Cookeville to serve Pho noodle. When you try it, you'll say, 'it's so good!'"
Dallas Stark is a waitress at Rice Time Bistro and Tech student. Stark thinks the most eccentric dish not a lot of people initially try is the chili-chili fish. Another dish people apparently don’t know a lot about is the sausage fried rice.
Stark said, “I think because it has salad and sausage in the same dish, people are thinking something like brown sausage is in it. But it’s actually really good.”
“We have fried rice, we have Japanese fried rice, and Pho is a Vietnamese food—it’s different. We do have mostly Thai food, but it’s all really good; you can’t go wrong,” said Maddy Deffendall, waitress at Rice Time Bistro and political science major at Tech.
So far, working at Rice Time Bistro has been a memorable experience for both Stark and Deffendall.
“My most memorable moments are with Mod. She’s the owner, and she’s always teaching me Thai words. Like, ‘Aroi-mak’ [Xr̀xy māk], which means ‘very delicious’ in Thai. But you have to stress the ‘mak’ or else you’re not saying it right at all,” said Deffendall.
As far as this dining reporter is concerned, Aroi Mak, indeed.
Rice Time Bistro is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m. every day except Sunday. Lunch bar is served from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.