INDEPENDENCE -- Adrian Burling ended his 40-year career mining for iron ore, nickel and other precious metals in Australia's arid and unforgiving Northwestern region last May.
Burling said he's happy to have that line of work and the health hazards that come with it behind him. Still, it never occurred to the 66-year-old from New Zealand to start living the retired life.
"Oh, I couldn't do that," said Burling, a recent Polk County transplant, almost dismissively. "I would be dead in six months from boredom."
Instead, he and his wife, Pensiri, are embarking on a new path -- as restaurateurs. Last week, they opened the doors of Royal Thai Restaurant in downtown Independence.
The establishment is tucked into the ground floor of the renovated Independence Opera House. Pensiri is the head chef and the menu is based on dishes found in and around her home city of Bangkok.
The couple has traveled back and forth between Australia and Oregon since the early 2000s to visit Pensiri's family, who own the Thai Country restaurant in McMinnville. That's the blueprint for the Burlings' effort, Adrian said.
"It's a very popular restaurant," Pensiri added. "I know the recipes; we want to do the same things here."
Adrian Burling began scouting the Willamette Valley for a location last year. He learned of the Independence Opera House, struck a deal with owner Ted Baker, and has worked frantically since last fall to convert part of the ground floor for a restaurant and install a spacious and sleek commercial kitchen.
The last authentic furnishings for Royal Thai only came off the boat a day before opening on Jan. 10, Burling noted. But the place has already drawn hungry crowds in its infancy.
"The reception has been very good," Burling said. "And Independence people are some of the nicest I've ever met."
Burling worked as an electrical engineer and an operations manager at mines in Australia between 1970 and 2010. Fortunately, most of his work took place above ground.
"I didn't like the idea of going underground," he said. "Too many people get killed that way."
Burling's connection to Thailand began when he studied at a university there in the early 1990s. Ironically, he met Pensiri in New Zealand in 1996.
Burling said he enjoys the pace and culture of life in Thailand -- and the food.
"I love it," he said. "There are so many dishes, I could never list them all."
Thai food varies by region. Most of what's offered at Royal Thai is what Pensiri ate or cooked while growing up in Bangkok, she said.
The cuisine's attraction are the flavors; vegetable, meat and seafood dishes are made spicy, sweet, sour or salty -- or all of the above -- using staples such as curry and chili pastes, peppers, lime juice, ginger and coconut milk.
Royal Thai imports some ingredients from abroad. Some items are proprietary, Burling said.
"The sauces are kind of the secret weapon," he said.
With Thai food, there's an emphasis on light preparation, to keep the vegetables fresh and get a meal to a customer quickly, Burling said.
It takes two minutes or less for Pensiri, for example, to prepare a plate of Pad Thai from the moment the rice noodles hit the wok to garnishing it with chopped peanuts.
"Food is kind of a shared experience in Thailand," Burling said. "You come as a group, each orders an individual plate and you sample from one another."
Royal Thai is the only non-West Salem Thai restaurant in Polk County. Still, Thai and southeastern Asian cuisine are fairly common in the Willamette Valley and becoming more popular, Burling said.
"There's a more cosmopolitan attitude toward food now," Burling said. "People are becoming more educated about it."
Though he's only been out of the mining game for less than a year, Burling said he doesn't miss "sucking in the dirt and the dust" that comes along with it.
"The hours running a restaurant are similar to working at a mine," he said. "But it's more comfortable and fun."
Royal Thai Restaurant.
268 Main St., Independence, inside the old Independence Opera House.
Lunch hours are 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner is available from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 4:30 to 9:30 on Friday. The restaurant is open from noon to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday and closed on Sunday.
Lunch items range from $6.50 to $9.50 and include a selection of
curry, rice and noodle dishes made with tofu, beef, pork, chicken or seafood.
Special dishes include Po Han, a combination of seafood, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, onions, and basil leaves in a spicy chili sauce, and Pla Tod Rad Prik, fried catfish fillets topped with chili and garlic.
Dinner prices range from $9.50 to $13.50. Food is available for takeout.
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