by Brandon Fox
It’s a small hole-in-the-wall spot that offers something surprising — a fusion of tropical and Southeast Asian cuisine, with an emphasis on Malaysian food, which is spicy, lavished with coconut milk and less sweet than the food of nearby Thailand. Kokonut Grill, at 1201 W. Main St. in the old Chow House space, former executive Tom Tham and his wife, Jaclyn, decided to take a leap of faith and move from Northern Virginia to Richmond to open a restaurant.
“It was a career change for me,” Tham says. “I traveled too much. … With my job, I got into a taxi in the morning and took a plane somewhere else.” Tham, the father of an 11-year-old daughter, wasn’t happy spending so much time away from his family. And he didn’t like uprooting everyone when his job as a management consultant required a move.
The Thams have family and friends with restaurants and felt confident that this was a business they could run successfully. Richmond, with its less demanding way of life, seemed like a logical choice when the space at Main and Morris streets became available.
Here, chicken satays are lightly glazed and grilled quickly, accompanied by a peanut sauce that is both spicy and grounded in the ubiquitous coconut. Cucumber chunks and slices of fresh pineapple are there to dunk in the sauce as well. Sweet chili shrimp arrives on a bed of finely shredded cabbage to scoop with your fork as you eat and add a subtle crunch to each bite. Both are accompanied by delicate, fragrant coconut rice.
Quick takeout boxes ($8.95) with rice and a choice of entrees that range from beef with house-made katsu sauce to sweet chili tofu are a good introduction to Tham’s tropical dishes. “Desserts such as ABC shaved ice [also know as ice kachang — a mixture of red beans, sweet corn, different jellies and coconut milk over shaved ice], snow cones, peanut pancake and Malaysian milk bubble tea are popular too,” he says.
“It is my heritage and I would like to introduce it to the Richmond area,” says Tham.“I don’t see [this kind of food] here and people need to try it.”