At a time when there are fewer affordable, locally-run restaurants in Aspen, the owners of Bangkok Happy Bowl Thai Bistro and Phatt Pho n’ Sushi, Paula Rungsawang and Kirk Coult, remain committed to the community they have called home the last 12 years.
“Paula was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and had years of experience running restaurants when we met,” said Kirk Coult. “One of the things we really wanted to do was bring authentic Thai cuisine to Aspen. We wanted to be a come-as-you-are type of restaurant that was affordable and high quality that locals could really enjoy.”
Rungsawang began her culinary journey in Sydney, Australia in 1990. She said she always had a talent and passion for cooking and found that Australians had the desire and taste for authentic Thai food. She decided to open her first restaurant while still in graduate school.
“The Asian food in Sydney is really the same level as in San Francisco,” she said. “It had to be bold, flavorful, and very authentic for it to be successful.”
After a decade in Australia, she decided to join her siblings in California. They were opening and running Thai restaurants in various locations in Los Angeles and the greater Southern California region. She found that the Los Angeles style of Thai cooking differed greatly from what she experienced in Sydney, noting that it was more of a “Thai-Chinese fusion.” Soon, she became adept at the fusion style of her native cuisine, which would serve her well when she eventually moved to Colorado.
Coult and Rungsawang met while he worked in commercial real estate managing Lake Arrowhead Village, a mountain community outside L.A. in San Bernardino County, and approached her about opening a Thai restaurant there. They eventually became partners in business and life and decided to relocate to Denver around 2010 to introduce Thai cuisine and dining to the Mile High City.
It was a chance encounter with Aspenite and commercial real estate broker Ruth Kruger that led them to their location at 300 Puppy Smith Street #202, across from Clark’s Market.
“We had two very good years in Denver,” said Coult. “But we lived right downtown next to our restaurant, and we wanted more nature than Denver had to offer. Ruth Kruger came to a convention in Denver and came to our restaurant. She liked the experience and asked us if would we be interested in looking at Aspen. ‘Aspen really needs a good Thai restaurant,’ she said. And that’s how we came to Aspen. We came up and we looked with her at what was available, and the space really fit the bill for us.”
Both Coult and Rungsawang said the Aspen community embraced them from day one. They recalled a long-term local who stopped in during those early days and said, “We’ve been waiting 17 years for a Thai restaurant, we hope you guys make it.”
Twelve years later they are still going strong, with locations in Kaui and Breckenridge and a new location coming to Key West in January 2024. In addition, they opened Phatt’ Pho n’ Sushi in May, right next door to Bangkok Happy Bowl.
Self-proclaimed music enthusiasts, they take pride in having been a primary food vendor at JAS Aspen Labor Day Experience for the past 11 seasons and serving as a JAS Aspen Labor Day Experience Sponsor for the past two years. The relationship came about after meeting Jim Horowitz, president, and CEO of Jazz Aspen Snowmass while he was eating at the counter at Bangkok Happy Bowl several years ago.
They have also spent the last seven years hiring and providing a musical venue for Aspen Music School duos for at least fifteen evenings each summer season, and nine years providing food for the annual Tibetan Monk blessing in Aspen.
“We’ve had incredible support throughout our twelve years and that is what encourages us and makes us always want to give back and figure out ways to do that,” said Coult.
He added that while they have other locations, Aspen is their flagship and the only place where they can’t make modifications to the standard menu without an uproar.
“Every time we’ve said ‘You know what? Maybe we’ll modify the menu a little bit and remove a few items,’ in Aspen, the answer is ‘no way.’ We don’t do that. We don’t even think about it anymore. Because immediately we have locals who’ve been coming to us for years and that’s their item and they let us know right away,” he said with a laugh. “Paula and I are small operators and it’s a family operation. We have a wonderful team that we consider family. That’s why it works.”
Sarah Girgis | The Aspen Times | October 9, 2023