On a wickedly cold winter night a couple of years ago, my Uber crawled past a crowd of bundled up people waiting outside what I presumed was a busy nightclub. “It’s right there,” my driver pointed. “Downstairs,” he encouraged as I braced for the frigid air.

Once I made it past the slush and puffy coats, I saw the glow of PAI and followed my nose through the doors into a different world, one that was warm and vibrant and full of enticing scents, sounds and buzzing people (so many people).

“It’s a very unique experience,” says Nuit Regular of PAI, where she has been the executive chef and co-owner since its inception in 2014. Named after a small town in northern Thailand — where Regular met her now husband and business partner, Jeff Regular on the back of an elephant — PAI is also a love story.

“Pai [the town] holds a very special place in our hearts,” she says. “When I came to Canada with Jeff, we really missed Pai’s friendly people. It’s a laid-back town with hippie vibes, very different from the big city of Toronto. We wanted to preserve the memory of Pai and bring that northern Thai experience to Toronto diners.”

After seven years of perfecting aromatic, soul-filling dishes, PAI was recognized by the Royal Thai Government with the Thai Select Signature Award (the highest prize for authentic Thai food and Thai restaurants). Today, a visit to PAI feels like a trip to northern Thailand, without the plane ticket.

It’s become so popular that they’ve had to build several expansions to the original downtown location. At the end of 2021, they completed a sprawling Eglinton location (where we photographed) — a challenging, but worthwhile passion project that COVID temporarily derailed. But even a global pandemic couldn’t stop PAI for long. Everyone from locals to hungry travellers and celebrities know it’s the spot for street-style Thai cuisine — but it took some convincing at first.

PAI executive chef and co-owner Nuit Regular

PAI executive chef and co-owner Nuit Regular

“In the early days, many of our guests would be like, ‘What is this?’ ‘Why is the colour like this?’ And I would say, ‘These are the beautiful spices that transport you back to northern Thailand,’” says Regular.

“My pad Thai is brown, not an orangey colour, so customers would say, ‘You don’t know how to cook pad Thai.’ That was the knowledge that they had because they were used to pad Thai with ketchup. I’m glad I’m stubborn because I’m not just looking for money, I want to stay true to my authentic tradition that I try to preserve and share,” she explains.

Regular, who first started cooking with her mother, learned through osmosis. She recalls helping the women in her family prepare meals, picking vegetables spotted with morning dew from the garden, and watching market vendors cook dishes. After pursuing a career in nursing, she decided (with much disapproval from her step-father) to follow her passion for making food. “When I create something, it just pops up in the back of my head; it’s so fresh, the memory is my library.”

When you taste a dish at PAI, you are tasting food etched in time by Regular’s experiences, culture and teachings from her family. “Being able to share my Thai food and culture, what I’ve grown up eating and cooking, makes me feel special,” says Regular, who takes us on an equally special journey through PAI’s iconic dishes.

PAI's iconic dishes

Tom Yum Mor Fai

Tom Yum Mor Fai at PAI Northern Thai Kitchen

“Mor fai is a container that we serve tom yum in. ‘Mor’ means ‘pot’ and ‘fai’ means ‘fire’, so a pot that makes fire. In Thailand we take a long time to eat, hours and hours of sitting and talking over food. By the time you eat your soup, it’s cold. So they created this pot and the soup stays hot. I want to bring our guests closer to Thailand so I import all the pots. The flavour of tom yum is refreshing with all the herbs and seafood. During the fall, it’s our best seller. It’s a dish that people want to come in to see and sit in front of the fire. It’s very interesting and beautiful.”

Khao Soi

Khao Soi at PAI Northern Thai Kitchen

“When I first moved to Canada, no one served khao soi. It’s a very unique northern Thai dish. The name means ‘cut rice’ or ‘slicing rice’ because the noodles are rice flour that’s been cut. We have a beautiful rich curry sauce which braises either chicken or beef. We top it with crispy fried egg noodles so it has a beautiful contrast of texture and colour. The richness of the sauce and then the tenderness of the meat — it’s really a beautiful dish. It’s the longest dish to make because I have to braise the beef and short ribs for many hours.”

Pad Gra Prow

Pad Gra Prow at PAI Northern Thai Kitchen

“This is a holy basil stir-fry. It’s a very typical dish for lunch, dinner and midnight in Thailand, people love it — oh my God, my mouth is watering right now! Stir-fry, minced meat on top of rice and a deep-fried egg on top. When the light and creamy part of the egg runs into the rice it’s so good. But it has to be the holy basil leaf that’s used in this stir-fry. They didn’t have it in Canada when I started cooking this dish, so I had to beg a supplier to import it into Toronto. At that time, the price was almost as expensive as lobster. I wanted this dish because it’s so iconic for Thai people and it’s so sad when people use Thai basil instead of holy basil — that’s like using coriander for mint. Now, we have a local farmer who grows the holy basil here and hopefully I will have enough supply from them for the whole year.”

Chef Nuit Pad Thai

Chef Nuit Pad Thai at PAI Northern Thai Kitchen

“The reason I call it ‘Chef Nuit Pad Thai’ is because of the ketchup versions that were popular back when I opened PAI in 2014. I wanted to make it different. The brown colour is from tamarind and palm sugar sauce. It’s our number one best-selling dish. The name was Jeff’s idea so people would remember it as my version of pad Thai which has sawtooth coriander for extra depth and bright flavour, Chinese chives and bean sprouts. Pad Thai is easy to pronounce and it’s very delicious and memorable. It’s sweet, sour and can be mild to extremely spicy. Everyone can eat it.”

Green Curry

Green Curry at PAI Northern Thai Kitchen

“The green curry is special because I serve it in a fresh, hand-cut coconut. You can eat the green curry with the young, fresh coconut meat which gives a sweetness and crunchiness to the curry. We import the curry paste from Thailand, but we still make our own version by adding ingredients that make it brighter. It’s our second-best-selling dish.

My team was like, ‘Chef, the price to supply bamboo shoots and coconut is very high,’ and I said, ‘I know, but I can’t change it.’ It’s what makes our green curry different. Bamboo shoots are all over northern Thailand, they’re like a weed growing in your backyard. At PAI we use the best part of the bamboo shoot, the soft part at the top, which is more expensive. But we have to stick to the best.

The rice is wrapped in banana leaf and it adds extra flavour. It maintains heat and doesn’t dry out when you’re eating. The experience of the steam from the rice and its aroma is like you’re next to a shack in Thailand.”