Beloved Elmhurst Thai restaurant, Lamoon, which closed its doors in August 2021 due to declining sales throughout the pandemic, has been reborn. Co-owners Jugkrwut Borin and Arada Moonroj are back, breathing life into the same corner spot at 81-40 Broadway, at 82nd Street, with an entirely new concept: charcoal-grilled Thai skewer shop Jai Sang Ma.
In January, Borin and Moonroj — who also run Brooklyn Thai hit Mao Mao — reopened the old Lamoon space as a tighter operation centered on Thai skewers, which make up 15 of the 20 items on the menu. The options include pla muk bod, made with a dried, whole squid that is grilled then delicately pressed through a metal roller to paper-thinness, and served with a spicy tamarind peanut sauce. The gai dang is a line of grilled chicken chunks reddened in a marinade of palm sugar, soy sauce, garlic and cilantro root, and the moo ping nahm pung features pork marinated in condensed milk and honey. They’re both marinated for 24 hours and grilled low, slow, and tender over charcoal for at least 10 minutes.
For now Jai Sang Mai’s dining room looks almost identical to that of its predecessor, Lamoon, down to the old wall murals painted by Borin’s friend from Thailand. Borin is tracking customer reception before giving the interiors a makeover, building out an outdoor dining area, and expanding the menu with many more skewers. “Open your eyes and you think you’re in Lamoon, but close them, smell the food, and you’re in Jai Sang Ma,” he says.
Borin is also waiting on a beer and wine license — which he expects to get within six months — so he can offer craft beers and bia won or Thai jelly beer, a supercooled beer slush. Until then, Jai Sang Ma is BYOB.
The Thai skewer shop is not only a rarity in NYC, which Borin and Moonroj hope will be a competitive advantage, but it’s also a lot easier to run. The pandemic delivered crushing operational blow after blow to Lamoon despite glowing reviews from Eater and the New York Times for chef Moonroj’s take on northern Thai dishes like Thai tea pad thai and mango salads dotted with ant eggs. Surging costs of food, labor, and delivery services amid declining sales had shriveled profits. Borin explains that Lamoon typically generated a 25 percent profit margin prior to the pandemic, but the increased cost of both the ingredients and shipping them from Thailand — $100 for goods like coconut cream tacked on to $300 for shipping — destroyed his margin last year. He increased wages for his three kitchen staff jobs by a third last year, but the spots were still impossible to fulfill. And delivery fees — the restaurant made most of its sales online last year — took another 10 percent off the table. “There was no way to make money anymore,” says Borin. “Not even a little bit.”
In the months that followed Lamoon’s closing, Borin mulled over the possibility of selling the storefront. “But I don’t want to sell the restaurant,” he says. “I love Lamoon. I created it. I’m not going to give up so easy.”
At Jai Sang Ma, named after a popular rock ballad, lengthy, time-intensive recipes were replaced by those that required fewer steps and ingredients. As such, only Moonroj and one hired chef helm the kitchen, and Borin lends a hand when needed. The third Lamoon partner, Piboon Thongtanyong, is no longer in the picture, allowing the co-owners to freely direct the restaurant’s menu and operations – like zeroing in on the lesser-seen Thai street food, which is often relegated to one or two appetizers at Thai restaurants.
There is one holdout from the Lamoon menu that Borin couldn’t bear to part with: the leng, a pork spine soup, cherished just as much by the restaurant’s following as Borin himself. “Listen to me,” he says firmly before dropping a soft rock beat. Expenses aside, he wants to eat this food. He misses the sheer variety and accessibility of skewers from his childhood in Bangkok. They’re “straight from the heart,” he says, just like the song lyrics that the restaurant is named after.
Jai Sang Ma is open from Wednesday through Monday from 12 to 10 p.m. with a one-hour break at 3:30 p.m. Cash only.