Ninilchik may be small in size, but not flavor. The most recent offering attracting hungry residents, visitors and Sterling Highway travelers is Keen Kow Thai Food.
No puzzle about the restaurant’s name. Translated, it means, “Eat Thai food.” That encouragement is underscored by the tantalizing aroma welcoming diners and hinting at chef Nina Oliver’s skill when it comes to combining herbs. Oliver and her husband, Rick, are owners of Keen Kow.
The four-page menu — including appetizers; salads; a selection of fried rice, noodle and curry dishes; main dishes and soups — also attests to Oliver’s love of food and her years of experience in the kitchen.
“My mom kept me in the kitchen all the time. I’m the older sister and Mom say, ‘You have to cook in the kitchen. It’s your job.’ My mom cooked really good. My family loved cooking. And my auntie taught me a lot about technique. ‘You have to do this. You have to do that. Herbs very important.’ I watched them from the beginning and I remember,” Oliver said of family influences during her childhood in Thailand.
For more than 20 years, Oliver prepared food in restaurants in her homeland. In addition to increasing her cooking abilities, she used the experience cooking for others as an opportunity to learn English.
“She’s actually a matchmaker,” Rick Oliver said. “Because she learned English working in restaurants and hotels, she’d help girls out that had bad experiences online.”
Oliver’s English-speaking abilities allowed her to develop a vetting process to ensure online connections between Thai women and non-Thai men went smoothly. That online link was how she met Rick, a former commercial pilot, five and a half years ago. They were married a year later and make their home in Anchor Point.
Oliver spent time cooking in the Homer area, but when the “really, really good” Ninilchik location became available, she and her husband decided to open their own restaurant. It is just off the Sterling Highway, near local businesses and within walking distance of the Ninilchik Fairgrounds.
“We’ve got some good help and the locals have been unbelievably supportive,” Rick Oliver said.
For those unfamiliar with Thai food, the Olivers will offer suggestions for ordering and tips for eating. For instance, the reason each table setting includes a fork and spoon is so the utensils can be used simultaneously to mix bites of food and maximize flavors.
“I work to connect foods,” Oliver said. “They’re not meant to be eaten one dish at a time. You combine bites of each item.”
The couple is considering adding a “daily special” to the restaurant’s offerings, a reflection of Oliver’s insatiable desire to try new recipes.
“I’m always trying to do something a different way. ‘Honey, can you taste this for me, please?’” she said, imitating the frequent request she makes of her husband. “When I open the refrigerator door at home, I have no plan. I look and it just goes quickly in my mind, ‘Oh, I must do that and that,’ and it changes every time.”
Rick Oliver agreed.
“I don’t think I ever had the same meal twice before we opened the restaurant,” he said, laughing. “I’ll get an absolutely phenomenal meal and a week later I’ll go, ‘How about what we had last Thursday?’ and she won’t have any idea what we had.”
Alaska’s growing season has Oliver considering new recipes for locally grown vegetables. The availability of fresh fish has her husband recalling meals from last summer.
“What she does with red salmon should be illegal,” Rick Oliver said.
The restaurant seats 24. Take-out also is available.