The bird’s eye or bird pepper chili is delicate and dainty, the tapered curve of the fruit mirroring a bird’s slim silhouette or the shape of its keen eye. Don’t let the size fool you: This tiny chili packs a punch — not as hot as a habañero, but over 20 times spicier than a jalapeño. Cultures across the world have celebrated this small yet mighty pepper, most notably Thailand, using its bright flavor and heat to enhance complex dishes of fresh aromatics, citric acidity, and tropical sweetness. It’s no wonder such a crucial ingredient would be the name of Bellevue’s Thai Kitchen Bird Pepper, furthering the legacy of the Thai Kitchen restaurant legacy.
Cindy Gayte, owner and manager of Bird Pepper, is a bit like a bird herself: curious, enterprising, and constantly on the move, flitting between the original Thai Kitchen along Northeast 20th Street, and Bird Pepper on the second floor of Bellevue Square. Even after Bird Pepper’s April opening, through months of renovation and enduring this year’s “snowpocalypse,” Gayte remains a vigilant presence across both restaurants, intertwining family heritage with food.
“It’s nice,” Gayte says of her days split between restaurants. “I love the flexibility of it.” Her multitasking superpowers developed over 15 years of project management in the construction industry. Though she and her siblings were brought up in the restaurant world — her mother, Lisa Suanpirintra Ruhl, opened Thai Kitchen in 1981 — she took time to widen her expertise beyond the culinary world. But Gayte returned to the nest when she took over her mother’s restaurant and eventually sought to expand the Thai Kitchen brand.
A Legacy Lives On
Gayte maintains her mother’s legacy restaurant, but Bird Pepper is her own vision, complementing the urbane aesthetic of a growing Bellevue. “Everything was meant to be; it felt good,” Gayte says of the old Pagliacci location becoming available. “I wanted a modern space, and this was a perfect fit.” Set against the floor-to-ceiling window is a showpiece light fixture resembling a galaxy of spheres that cast starlit lattice when the sun goes down. A collection of metal woks adorns the stairway wall, and a row of Thai sticky rice steamer baskets in the upstairs dining loft is displayed like modern art.
There’s personal connection within the aesthetic — the textured wallpaper was selected because it reminded her of the woven mats her family would sit on for picnics. A vibrant painting of coconut palms is a nod to her father, Leun Suanpirintra, whose family had coconut trees in Thailand. Intricate teak wood screens adorning entryways are from her mother’s personal collection. Her brother Tom had a traditional fishing boat brought back from Thailand. Too large to fit in his restaurant (yes, that Tom Suanpirintra, of Seattle’s iconic Thai Tom), it hangs in a place of honor, above the main doors, reflecting Thailand’s bountiful resources.
“We kept this menu small so that we can change it seasonally,” Gayte says of Bird Pepper’s menu. “It keeps it fresh and people coming back wondering what’s next.”
She’s already looking forward to autumn. “I hope to bring back something my mom made: a really yummy pumpkin curry. There’s a really good pumpkin fried rice that I want to do in the fall.”
All in The Family
The menu reads like a love letter to family and a tribute to those who helped make Bird Pepper happen. Gayte’s husband, Chris, also grew up in a restaurant family — his father Philippe was a French chef who owned Kirkland’s Bistro Provencal.
Her husband helped curate Bird Pepper’s wine menu, reflecting French varietals, and it has a favorite dish sporting his high school nickname — Gayter’s Beef Salad. Brody’s Fried Rice is an off-the-menu item that has since become official. “It’s a dish that my mom would always make for my son to get him to eat his vegetables. But then everybody would go, ‘Can I have that rice?’” she said with a laugh.
Her brother, Tom, would make spicy, crisp garlic prawns for their regular lunch dates. “That’s his favorite thing to cook for me, and it’s my favorite thing to eat with him,” she said with deep fondness. With his blessing, Thai Tom’s Firecracker Prawns are on the menu for everyone to share with a favorite lunch partner. Gayte’s personal place on the menu is in the form of the Tipsy Bird, a blush pink cocktail with fresh, simple ingredients and a muddled bird pepper to give it a warming hit of spice.
Family is a foundation of the restaurant that goes beyond a menu and transcends generations. “It’s fun to recognize people like my brother who have always been a huge part of my life,” she said. “Same as my mom, and now that my mom and dad aren’t around anymore, I wanted to do things like that.” She is the first to credit her mother’s foresight, back in the ’80s, when she offered Chinese-style noodles on her menus, using familiar foods to encourage guests’ appetites toward pad thai or duck curry, which felt exotic at the time. Today, people embrace the evolving culinary landscape, and they request spice levels far beyond the standard five stars. Lisa Suanpirintra Ruhl would approve; Gayte describes her mother eating bird’s eye peppers like popcorn, without breaking a sweat.
Passing on the Wisdom
As a child, she and her siblings would do chores at the restaurant to earn pocket money. “I probably broke 10 dishes a day, but you know, if I wanted money to play video games, you got in there,” she said. Her son Brody has adopted that work ethic, wiping down menus to save up for the latest Xbox release. “Hopefully, I have some of [my mother’s] wisdom that she’s passed on to share this legacy.”
A mother’s poise and guidance shepherd Gayte’s path as a restauranteur and citizen of the world. “I always try to remember that you also have to be willing to take some risks. My mom has said that from day one with anything I’ve ever done. She’s always been like, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ Don’t be afraid to fail. If you’re afraid to fail, then you probably aren’t going to go anywhere.” Spoken like a triumphant bird soaring high.
Thai Kitchen Bird Pepper is open daily for lunch and dinner and also has happy hours.