Mammoth’s Thai’d Up still hot after a decade
What’s a guy from Philadelphia doing cooking Asian cuisine at 8,000 feet in the Eastern Sierra? Good question, but for Thai’d Up owner Mike Coco, the answer’s simple: living the life and serving authentic, exotic food with a little bite to it. And this year, he and wife Jen have a few things to celebrate: one, the birth of his son, Miles, and two, 10 years in business.
The first incarnation of what we now know as Thai’d Up opened for business on Nov. 14, 2001, but its story dates back to the City of Brotherly Love when Coco was 14 and scrubbing big stock pots in a restaurant owned by a friend of his mom’s. “The chef gave me an opportunity to learn prep, running the line and so on,” Coco recalled. “By the time I was a high school senior, I was doing orders.”
During his college years at Temple University, Coco waited tables and learned the ropes in the front of the house. As fate would have it, he had been a skilled, avid skier, and his mom’s half-brother, a fellow by the name of Skip Harvey, said he could land a job back in Mammoth Lakes. “I didn’t have a next move in life, and came out here to ski and teach.” Coco came out here in 1993 for a season as a ski instructor and that, he said, has lasted to the present.
During the late ‘90s, he met his now wife Jen. “She and I knew each other from working at Sierra Star, and we dated off and on, but she always came to town and later left for Los Angeles or other points on the globe,” Coco reminisced. In 2003, something different happened: she didn’t leave. “I’d planned on moving back to Los Angeles, but fate kept pushing us back together,” Jen added. They were engaged in 2006 and married in 2008. And this past summer, Jen gave birth to their first child, Miles.
Coco, meanwhile, got a job offer at the original Alpenrose. “Matt and Miriam Thilde were very supportive of me,” Coco remembered. “I vowed I’d never work in another restaurant after college, but I liked the Alpenrose … it was a family business, and they really needed a cook who could basically do it all. I said, ‘I can do that.’ We started doing Thai specials and that kind of set things in motion.”
He would later set out on his own, and his first-ever location was a space he shared with a deli that was located where Jalapeños is now. Coco served up Thai food at night, and credits that arrangement as a key point in his career. “I would never have been able to do a startup on a ski instructor’s shoestring budget,” he noted.
By this point, Mammoth was into its boom cycle. The Village had just opened, and good spaces were getting harder to find. Ian Algerøen at Restaurant Skadi told Coco of a hair salon below his restaurant that was moving. Coco is quick to thank his “friends, ardent supporters and mentors, Ron and Annette Larson, whom he said were “integral in getting the salon deal done.” Perhaps as a sort of homage, Coco has retained some of the salon’s mirrored shelving, which can still be seen behind the front counter.
“I thought about it and a couple of things became clear to me,” he explained. First, Thai is one of my all-time favorite foods. It was also one of those ethnic cuisines that didn’t really exist much in the area. Locals used to go out to this place in Hawthorne, Nev., and they’d get really excited to eat there. After 9 years of teaching skiing, that was my light bulb moment.”
Making the move to the new building, however, wasn’t easy or fast. “It was an arduous conversion,” Coco said. “Our 2-month, $9,000 remodel took 9 months and a lot more money.”
When he finally opened in December 2004, a mega-tsunami hit Thailand, and Coco felt the karmic shockwave here on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. “We got hit with electrical issues, venting problems, blackouts, you name it. I kept wondering if there wasn’t a connection.” His advice to prospective eatery entrepreneurs: “Don’t open during Christmas week!”
What did work from the outset, however, was the restaurant’s catchy name. “It was a humorous play on words … when you’re ‘tied up’ with work, family, Eastern Sierra life. We originally intended it for our to-go ad campaign, but we kept coming back to it.”
He credits Jen, who’s now Thai’d Up’s CFO, with keeping the business end of things focused and on track. “I paint with a wide brush. I come in like a tank, and Jen comes in like a sniper,” Coco quipped. Jen, he says, took Thai’d Up to the next level, adding beer and wine and expanding the dine-in experience, while keeping to-go a staple part of the operation. “We have a great local core base, but we’re picking up more vacationers who are attracted to us and want a break from their usual routine.”
And if you’re going to attract new customers, Coco is convinced that authenticity is the key. He and chef Rich Leonin make trips to Thailand for continuing education and research. “It’s very refreshing to see ingredients used there in fresh from that you typically only find here in dried form,” Leonin said. Both are quite taken by the culture, of which food is an integral part. “Eastern culture and mysticism is a big part of my life,” Coco acknowledges.
“We get along great, we’ve been friends for years,” Leonin observed. “We’ve got more than 40 years of combined experience, and we both are knowledgeable and skilled at working the front and back of house.” Leonin and Coco were both ski instructors and roommates at one point. Leonin started his culinary career with Chart House in college, and after travelling for the company, he returned to Mammoth, where he worked in many of the area’s fine-dining establishments.
“I started with Mike at the new location, and it was a perfect fit,” Leonin said. “My background is Chinese and Filipino, and I learned a lot just watching my family cook.” Thai cuisine, he points out, involves a lot of basic chemistry. “It has certain techniques to develop flavors … acids, bases, salt, sugar, savory, sweet. And presentation counts for a lot.”
Leonin and Coco maintain that making everything from scratch gives them a broader flavor palate. “It’s not in your face,” Coco described. “It’s spicy, but we can tailor it to you. You don’t have to be intimidated.” A good word to describe the menu: “approachable.”
And one fun feature on the menu is Thai’d Up’s Chinese items. Only available at certain times of the year, the limited edition dishes are fairly traditional, but over the past 2-3 years have become pretty popular.
To celebrate 10 years as part of that community, look for expansion of the Thai menu. Much beyond that, Coco isn’t speculating about the future, except to say that he knows it won’t be static. “We see the business as dynamic, and continually moving forward,” he assessed. “There’s a philosophy in Buddhism: nothing is permanent; change is all.”
Thai’d Up is located at 587 Old Mammoth Road. 760.934.7355.