Missoula residents with a taste for Thai lemongrass, basil and ginger will find a new option this summer with the opening of the Koh Chang restaurant on North Reserve Street.
Owner Alex Liu, 35, has worked in his share of restaurants. At age 15 he took a job bussing tables in Taiwan where he was born, graduated to waiter then to the kitchen. He said culinary school’s no tradeoff for what’s learned on the job.
Instead, he learned cutting and wok work at the rough hands of seasoned chefs.
“They kind of get on you.” Liu said, remembering his first kitchen with a laugh. “They use the ladle to clock your head.”
He left Taiwan after working in dining for the 5-star Sheraton Grand Taipei Hotel for the Texas restaurant scene before joining family in founding the Missoula location of Japanese-themed chain Kobe Seafood and Steak. Now he’s setting off on his own dream.
Liu recognized the need for more Thai eateries in Missoula, especially in the north where there are few Asian options. Liu’s friend Ryan Tootell, who grew up in Missoula when there were even fewer options, said the discovery of Asian cuisine was a game changer.
“If it broadens the profile of Asian food at large in this town, it’s good for everyone,” Tootell said of Liu’s new restaurant.
Though he’s Taiwanese, Liu spent years working at his uncle’s Thai restaurants in Texas, and his partner in the new venture, James Lin, is currently training under a Thai chef.
Liu chose to name his restaurant Koh Chang after a Thai island, and plans to use elephants—“Chang” meaning elephant in Thai—to fill out a comfortable, tropical decor. The restaurant will seat 65.
The menu will feature traditional Thai cuisine—noodle dishes like pad Thai, curries, coconut soups and Thai fried rice—in addition to staples from other Southeast Asian countries such as Pho, a Vietnamese soup.
As for specialties?
“Actually, everything is special,” Liu said, but added that the Malaysian desert bubur cha cha—made from coconut milk and sweet potatoes—is something extra special for customers to look forward to.
Stressing the importance of affordable prices, Liu said his 15 lunch specials will start at $9, with dinner mains averaging $15. The restaurant will also serve beer, wine and sake.
He aims to hit three bottom lines—good food, good prices and good service.
“When the customers finish their plates, I feel good. I feel happy,” Liu said.
Liu, who will still run Kobe Seafood and Steak with family, said Kobe’s quality will carry over to his new enterprise.
Koh Chang will be located next to the AT&T store in the Grant Creek Town Center at 3075 North Reserve Street.
The space is still under renovation, but Liu expects to open in early August.