Thai Café is Stanford’s hole-in-the-wall restaurant, tucked in a niche near the Math Corner but well known to many for offering good yet affordable food. A longstanding Stanford institution, the establishment has been serving food to the University community since 1987, when it was founded by the petite and gray-haired Mykanh Bahlman and her then-husband.
While for decades the cafe has been known to many students as Thai Café, however, the majority of its menu isn’t even Thai food, consisting mostly of Vietnamese soups and salads. In fact, the cafe wasn’t even originally called Thai Café.
What’s in a name
“I’m Vietnamese,” Bahlman noted, admitting that many have mistaken her as being Thai.
Originally, the eatery was called the Jordan Hall Café but changed its official name during its renovation five years ago.
“Though it’s not actually called the Thai Café, people have been calling it that for over 20 years,” she said. “I just went ahead and changed it. We used to try and correct people and have the original name written all over the menu, but it never made a difference.”
A customer standing in line who preferred not to be named echoed Bahlman’s account, noting that – despite having eaten at the café many times over the course of decades – she had only referred to the restaurant as “Thai Café.”
“I never knew that it was called the Jordan Hall Café,” the customer expressed.
The “Thai Café” name even crossed over international borders.
“Customers come from all over the world and ask for the Thai Café,” Bahlman said. “I have one customer from Italy, a professor who used to come with his wife to the cafe at least once every summer.”
Although it may seem like the busy Thai Café is already comfortably situated in its place in the basement of Building 380, the cafe only recently moved to its current location.
Before assuming its current location, the cafe used to be on the fifth floor of the building before later moving into the opposite side of its current location.
“We moved from [the other side of the building] in 2009,” Bahlman said. “It took over 14 months of renovation.”
Bahlman lamented the fact that during those 14 months when the restaurant was closed, the café generated no revenue. She also noted that the newer location, though larger in total, has a smaller kitchen, which meant that they could only have a third of their original kitchen equipment in the space.
“The kitchen size is what really restricts the kind of food that you can serve,” she said. “It gets really cramped in there, and it is a little difficult to move around.”
Affordable prices on an expensive campus
The limited kitchen size isn’t the only reason for the relatively small menu, however. According to Bahlman, the menu is designed for the cafe to be affordable for students.
“Most of my customers are students,” she said. “That’s why I haven’t raised the price much and hope not to raise it past six dollars per food item.”
She framed that desire to limit prices as the cause of her refusal to take credit cards, as the fees needed to take cards would end up raising the prices.
Food prices have indeed remained relatively consistent. The price for an entrée was $5.50 up to 2004, but even the current $6 per food item still presents appeal for customers.
Yasmin Bashirova ’17 argued that the pricing gave the food good value in comparison to other locations on campus.
“The price is acceptable for a big portion of food,” she said, adding that at other places on campus, a similar item is much more expensive.
In addition, Bashirova commented the convenience of equal pricing for each entrée, which Bahlman later explained was to ensure that the entire menu was affordable for students.
“Everything is the same price, so there is no financial restriction in buying certain items,” Bashirova said.
Bahlman noted, however, that low prices make it more difficult to maintain a steady margin. She expressed concern about having to raise the prices, explaining that the rental rate she pays for the restaurant’s lease will rise – by 56.25 percent – when she renews her contract.
Gradual food price increases over the years have meant that certain items have had to come off the menu. Thai Café used to serve banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich, but it was taken off the menu because it could not be sold at the same price as the other items and needed more kitchen space to prepare.
The fastest line on campus
The Thai Café is known for more than its food, though. Many students joke about the line at the cafe being the antithesis of the lengthy and protracted line at the post office.
Bahlman explained that the menu is designed to enable fast preparation and serving of food.
“We buy fresh produce and do preparation for food every morning,” Bahlman said. “I normally get to the cafe at around 5 a.m. to prepare for the day.”
“They do a great job with serving you right away,” Bashirova said. “If you’re in a rush to class, you can grab the salad, unlike lots of other places.”
Bashirova recalled that she was in a hurry the first time she went to Thai Café.
“I think the first time I went there was my second week, because I had CME 100 in Building 420, and I realized that it was a place [where] I could go to eat and get to class quickly and on time.”
Bahlman said that the cafe serves around 350 people for lunch on weekdays, with the length of the line peaking at around noon.
“I make sure that the line is short. Even at its peak you never have to stand in it for over 20 minutes,” she said.
Contact Nitish Kulkarni at nitishk2 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.