By Cameron Lee
December 3, 2019
The number of women restaurateurs has grown mightily in recent years, but not many are immigrants who started their business in the eye of the economic recession. Jai Budsri is the owner of Deejai Thai, a staple in Charlotte best known for their pad thai, along with an assortment of classic Asian dishes in the historic district of Myers Park off Providence Road.
Growing up in Sisaket, Thailand, Budsri rarely had a chance to cook as a kid with the abundance of hawkers selling delicious street foods in markets across the city. When she was 15 years old, her father was awarded in the green card lottery allowing him to move his family to Chicago in the mid ‘90s. After one month in the states, she was pushed right into her newfound surroundings: “I had to go straight into high school and I was a little bit culture shocked, I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have any friends.” Her parents started a restaurant in 1998 in Chicago, and that’s where Budsri cut her teeth in the industry working both in the kitchen and front of the house.
Five years later, Budsri decided to venture to Atlanta for warmer weather. She worked in real estate for six years and her parents eventually moved down to start a restaurant in 2004. When the housing market started to crash in 2008, Budsri and her husband– who she met in Atlanta– decided to move on to greener pastures. After a visit to Charlotte, she quickly got acclimated to the city which was a lot less robust then we experience today, “I fell in love with Charlotte. It was a small quaint city, it wasn’t crazy yet,” she said.
Wanting to get out of the real estate business, Jai formulated a plan to start a restaurant in the city, but used her expertise in evaluating properties to find the perfect location. She settled on Myers Park. “I kind of mapped it. At the time there was only Thai Orchid, Thai House, and Thai Taste on East Blvd. I thought this area definitely needed a Thai Restaurant,” she said.
She fell in love with the building on 613 Providence Road, which was Salute Ristorante at the time. She knew the owners were looking to sell but the price was lofty. She stayed persistent and adamant on that location and continued to come into the restaurant to talk the owners down– and they eventually gave in. Budsri opened Deejai Thai in 2008, but the timing was inopportune; she was three months pregnant at the time. With the help of her parents, she managed the restaurant that served classic Thai fare in Myers Park throughout her pregnancy.
Learning the palate of Charlotteans in the area, she fine-tuned her recipes to accommodate the tastes of Americans. “I had to adjust recipes going by what customers liked, I adjusted the pad thai, my mom’s recipe is very sweet so I had to tone it down to be less sweet,” she said. After adding a full sushi bar a year after the opening, Deejai Thai was hitting its stride. Periodically experimenting with the menu, Budsri was yearning to add more traditional Thai dishes, but realized the demand wasn’t quite there in Myers Park.
In 2016, she opened Rai Lay after eight years of successfully running Deejai Thai. “I wanted to be able to bring in new dishes to Charlotte, I looked around and no one wanted to do Kao Soy or Moo King,” she said. Shortly after, she opened a third restaurant in NoDa after scouting the potential of the area after the new light rail. The NoDa version of Deejai Thai is a noodle bowl concept that fit better for the eat-and-go millennial demographic in the area. After running three restaurants for a couple of years, she grew exhausted of the demands of the restaurant business. She sold both Rai Lay and the Deejai Thai NoDa in 2019.
Now with a refocused energy strictly dedicated to the original Deejai Thai and the root of the restaurant name (deejai means “happy” in Thai), Budsri is in a better mental space, “When I see employees happy, they make the customers happy, and I’m happy,” she said. Serving one of the most all-encompassing Asian menus in the city, there’s a lot to explore. From the colorful poke bowls with hearty portions of fish to the classic Thai tom yum soup, Deeja Thai is the rare restaurant that consistently manages a wide-ranging menu. There’s an assortment of noodle dishes of all shapes and sizes from the thick and buoyant drunken noodles to the flat white Thai noodle dish, pad see ew.
There is also a full-service sushi bar headed by chef Hee Jee Park, but the standouts at this versatile Asian eatery are the pad thai and curries, all of which can be made with shrimp, chicken, beef, duck, vegetables, and tofu. Budsri is also extremely welcoming to the vegan community as she ventures more into the world of plant-based cuisine, and wants to note that mostly all of her dishes can be made to suit a vegan or gluten-free lifestyle.
While there may be many great immigrant success stories across America, Jai Budsri’s story is a bit unique. Taking the biggest financial risk of her life at a time where there was so much economic uncertainty, she has endured not only as an immigrant, but a strong woman, mother, and entrepreneur. With a loyal and diligent staff, which includes longtime employees Aratsany and Ann who always greet patrons with a warm smile, Deejai Thai truly embodies the meaning of its origin: making people happy.
Shot and edited by Erick Lottary