Chef Emshika Alberini has created a destination restaurant, a TV show, and a New England appreciation for her native cuisine.
Littleton, New Hampshire, is one of those tiny towns along the Eastern seaboard that once you visit you never forget. Located on the edge of the picturesque White Mountains and bounded by the Connecticut River, the tight community has developed a burgeoning culinary, farm, and microbrewery following, becoming a dining destination for road-trippers and tourists from Boston, Maine, and even as far as Mexico and the West Coast.
When Emshika Alberini opened Chang Thai Café in 2008, she managed not only to survive a debilitating recession, but also to create a thriving business, drawing loyal regulars and curious visitors right from the start. She did this all in honor of her sister, Ann-Sriwipha Phathan, who passed away that same year and had always dreamed of opening her own restaurant. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her; her spirit lives on at the restaurant,” Alberini says.
At Chang Thai, the restaurant is indeed a family affair: Alberini’s mother works in the kitchen and her husband helps with the front of the house. Translated, the word Chang means elephant, and to many it is the symbol of friendship, family, good fortune, and happiness.
The American Dream Realized
Alberini came to the U.S. in the early 2000s to attend graduate school in Albany, New York, studying organizational management and actually writing the business plan for a Thai restaurant as part of her degree requirements while she worked part-time as a restaurant server. During school she met her husband, a native of Littleton, and they spent several years working in the corporate world before moving to her husband’s childhood town, growing their family to include two children (now ages 6 and 8), and opening Chang Thai.
“Growing up in Bangkok, I was often at my mother’s and grandmother’s side learning how to cook Thai,” she says. “Since then, I have added my own style, but in keeping with their traditions.”
Those Thai traditions have played well in America. Over the years Chang Thai has garnered a steady following, growing from the small group of eight diners who came on opening night to earning acclaim as one of New Hampshire’s best restaurants, according to local and regional media. And, Alberini has received personal recognition from New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan for her entrepreneurship. Most recently, the restaurateur has garnered public attention through her new cooking show, “Emshika’s Kitchen,” which airs Saturday afternoons on WBIN-TV Boston.
At Chang Thai, Chef Alberini draws from the simple, pronounced flavors of Bangkok dishes. “In Bangkok, nothing is too spicy or too salty or too sweet,” she says. “Everything is very balanced, lighter—not heavy or oily—that’s why it has a desirable taste for Americans.”
Alberini kicks the freshness up a notch by sourcing from the surrounding small and organic farms in the area as well as sourcing Hamachi yellowtail, lobster, and seafood from Maine and the New England coast for the sushi menu items. Chang Thai also receives daily deliveries from Boston.
Her most famous dishes continue to be the pad thai, known for having just the right amount of peanut flavor without being too fishy or heavy on the vinegar, and pad see ew, which is less sweet and cloying than many of the American variations. To do this, Chef Alberini opts for equal parts soy and oyster sauce, lots of black pepper, and only a tiny touch of sugar.
Alberini also makes all of the restaurant’s Thai curry sauces by hand, making the pastes with seasonings and building on flavors with coconut milk, fresh herbs, and aromatics. For a Tamarind duck, she roasts and deep-fries whole duck sourced from Long Island, serving it with a homemade sauce of tamarind pulp, ginger, garlic, chili paste, fish sauce, soy, and a touch of sugar. Alberini has had so many requests for her sauce recipes that she is currently researching the steps to bottle and sell her products at the restaurant, and possibly in local stores.
Incorporating seasonal finds into the menu also plays a part in Chang Thai’s success. In the summer Alberini will add baby kale, radishes, wild cherry tomatoes, and watermelon—all grown in the area—to her Thai salad with peanut dressing. She’s also made a kale fried rice for a lighter, fresher take on the classic. Delicate microgreens add color and a pop of flavor to soups and sandwiches.
When asked how she made it through the hard economy, Alberini says she tried to stay positive and determined. “I thought if I could get 25 percent of the people [in this area] to come to my restaurant, I could make it,” she says. Having achieved that and much more, she is now able to share some of her focus with the boutique tea and coffee shop, M-ZO, which she opened in 2014.
When the bookstore located next door to her restaurant was about to close, she purchased the building for M-ZO and was also able to save the bookstore—simply adding coffee and tea to the space above because as she says, “You can’t go wrong with coffee and books.” Alberini sources 40 kinds of artisan teas from all over the world, including various oolong, green, black, white, and even Japanese brown blends, and coffee beans from Intelligentsia.
Through Chang Thai and her cooking show, Alberini continues to bring Thai cuisine to New England and encourage diners to cook Thai at home, keeping ingredients simple, clean, and accessible. And always, her food and hospitality pay tribute to her sister.