Honoring its original intention of serving ‘food to heal’ from Lao heritage recipes, Thai House Co. & Sushi evolves essentially

Amanda Rae
Food Matters

Recently, chef Arik Sananikone opened a box of ingredients sent to Thai House Co. & Sushi in El Jebel to find a case of Chinese fermented black bean paste he didn’t order. Instead of sending it back — “There are no mistakes!” he says, smirking from behind the sushi bar during dinner prep one Sunday— Sananikone set his chef sister, Stephanie, to task. She produced a Thai-style black bean sauce to accompany steamed snow crab, clams and mussels from the restaurant’s new showcase seafood bar.

“It’s good to challenge each other,” Stephanie explains, breaking into laughter about the absurd amount of stinky bean paste on a freezer shelf. “When stuff like that happens, we try to turn it around. I wanted to mellow the flavor…and I put in my mom’s curry. It was perfect.”

Momma Sang’s Curry is the reason why THC & Sushi exists in the first place, so it’s only natural that her concoction enhances this spontaneous sauce.

Arik relocated to Aspen after the Sananikone family’s 18-year-old Imperial Café in Corpus Christi, Texas, caught fire in May 2017, followed by renovation delays due to Hurricane Harvey, which hit that August. While working the sushi bar during Jing’s transformation from Asie Restaurant, Sananikone noticed the former Sushi Ya Go-Go space available in the El Jebel plaza. Meditating on how to best use the full kitchen included, his heart revealed: “Mom’s curry is gonna heal this valley,” he recalls.

In September 2019, Arik, Stephanie (who relocated from Washington, D.C.), and cousin Paul Sananikone (also a sushi chef during Jing’s rebrand) opened THC & Sushi and began packing 40 dining room seats almost immediately. Within the first week or two, they halted reservations in favor of walk-ins only. Word spread quickly about the trio’s creative, contemporary dinner fare: signature sushi rolls and sashimi “freestyles,” balanced by savory Thai tapas such as crispy rice lettuce wraps and fish nachos, plus noodles, stir-fries and, of course, that curry from a closely guarded recipe. (Stephanie will share one uncommon ingredient she stockpiles: kaffir lime leaves plucked from Sang’s garden in Texas.)

In those first months, a line formed frequently out the front door and eight sushi bar seats were best snagged early.

One initial wow moment: Stephanie’s salmon freestyle marinated in blue butterfly pea flower tea, which turned the fish purple and cut its oiliness alongside fresh mint. Arik topped a yuzu-soy escolar freestyle with crushed pistachios and interspersed a loaded sushi roll with strips of airy crisps that resembled twists of white tissue paper. (What happens when an artist accidentally drops a spring roll wrapper into a fryer then manipulates the shape to add sculptural texture to dishes.)

More recently, shiitake seabass arrives to the table with a side of aromatic broth speckled with chile flakes, ginger and fresh herbs. The warm liquid, poured tableside on the patio, reaches precisely the top edge of the aluminum takeout pan like the most delicious infinity pool. Crackly fried hamachi collar, sweet-and-sour-glazed baby octopus, and the dramatic “Bird’s Nest” tangle of crispy noodles topped with shrimp, chicken and vegetables are other showstoppers to seek out.

Clearly the food’s the easy part, grounded in traditional technique from two decades at Imperial Café yet veering into another dimension of modern surprise. (Stephanie, also an artist, began her culinary career as a 10-year-old dishwasher, then graduated at age 11 to sushi knife-work with her father’s guidance.)

An immigrant from Laos, mother Sang Sananikone studied under George-San at the four-star Murasaki Japanese Restaurant in Simsbury, Connecticut, ignoring her grandfather’s plea to never become a chef. (He catered to the crown in Laos; Stephanie, Arik and Paul’s great uncle was the last prime minister before the Royalist party lost control of the country in a coup by the Pathet Lao Communists.)

Meaning “service of the people,” the Sananikone name represents perseverance, now championed by this younger generation. Despite roadblocks, Sananikones adapt to nourish community.

“I know you remember the vibe (inside), we did create something special and with all the changes it’s been hard,” Stephanie says. “We’re evolving to a whole new operation, more take-out culture. The patio has been our saving grace during COVID-19. We live in a beautiful area…eat outside!”

Some 30 to 40 seats and sunset views dot the dining deck, which had been planned for a springtime launch anyway. Customers are ordering massive sushi boats for private parties and home entertaining, selecting a budget from $50 to $3,000 or more, specifying dietary preferences (gluten-free, vegetarian) and weaving in Thai snacks such as garlic-lemongrass chicken wings and crispy pork belly bites. Soon beverage coolers will display an expanded selection of grab-and-go beer, wine and saké.

Luckily, fluidity is in the Sananikone DNA.

“Each one of us has a different style,” shares Stephanie, who endured intense spring training with Sang at THC & Sushi to learn Thai specialties she remembers from childhood. “We express ourselves through our cuisine.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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