“I learned to cook from my mom and grandma,” says Sunisa (aka, Susan) Nitmai, head chef and owner of Pata Cafe in the far-flung neighborhood of Elmhurst in Queens, New York.
“My mom, she is beautiful, kind, friendly,” says Suchasinee Nitmai, Susan’s daughter and general manager of Pata Cafe.
Prior to cooking at Pata Cafe, Susan was a teacher for 37 years in her home country of Thailand. Upon traveling to countries including Germany, Hong Kong and America, Sunisa wanted to retire from teaching and find a new job. She realized that it was cooking that made her happy—something her daughter found surprising as her mom never did any “serious cooking” at home when she was a child.
Pata Cafe opened in December of 2016, specializing in various coffees and bubble teas before acquiescing to neighborhood requests for Susan’s homemade Thai fare.
“She’s still a teacher too, but she [taught] me how to cook and I love it,” says sous chef Satika Kanchanamusik.
“I cook real Thai food, Isan food, like another part of Thailand,” Susan says. “We make the food like family-style like a mom make for you at home. We just try to make normal food to be the best.” Michelin inspectors note that “there is a keen eye for textures, acidity and electric heat” in classic dishes like tom yum goong that dons a “sinus-clearing spice.”
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The treehouse-cum-workshop interior of Pata Cafe, too, is a hit; Kanchanamusik, along with the help of some friends, helped decorate, making tables and light fixtures crafted from old soup cans to give off a cozy vibe.
Pata Cafe was bestowed a Bib Gourmand distinction in the MICHELIN Guide New York City 2019 selection—a surprise for the team. “Oh, I feel good,” says Susan, noting that she never thought inspectors would find the under-the-radar locale.
“Everybody happy, I happy too.”