So often guests on my food tours tell me that they get in the habit of always eating at the same places and ordering the same items, or that they are hesitant to try new restaurants because they are not sure how to drive or park in certain areas of town. That’s where I come in. This column will be a guide in exploring the hidden gems, haute cuisine, and culinary hot spots of Knoxville.
A slight bit west of Downtown, near the University of Tennessee campus, is one of my newest favorite dining destinations. Near campus? Yes! Put on some relaxing music as you carefully make your way through Cumberland Avenue traffic and pedestrians. The ride will be worth it.
There is a point on Cumberland Avenue where you might turn one direction onto Phil Fulmer Way, named for the famed football coach with the second highest number of wins in UT history. Turn the other direction and you will be on James Agee Street, named for the Knoxville native and author whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Death in the Family, was set in this neighborhood. That will lead you straight to Chaiyos Thai and Sushi. Chaiyos, located at 601 James Agee St., is nestled between modern student housing and historic Queen Anne Victorian homes. Though this is a dense and congested neighborhood, you can find free parking behind Chaiyos, and along some of the side streets, or metered parking on the street in addition to a five dollar lot across the way.
Immediately after my first meal at Chaiyos, I began plotting how I could rent one of those hundreds of nearby apartments so that I might walk there to eat every day. Chaiyos is a modern space with a simple and clean look, giving it a zen like, calming feeling. The dining room contains sleek wooden tables and chairs, and delicate, sheer curtains with gold edging line the windows. There is a small outdoor patio with a view into downtown and the iconic Knoxville Sunsphere.
Chaiyos opened in this location in 2010 and has developed a loyal following of regular customers. They feature a diverse menu of appetizers, soups, noodles and stir fry, sushi combos, specialty rolls, makimono rolls, as well as six desserts along with eleven house specials. One of the best parts of the menu for me is the choice of Thai iced tea or Thai iced coffee, full of spices and cream.
A chat with the manager and niece of the owner, Poopae, revealed that some of the top selling dishes at Chaiyos are the Drunken Noodles and Pad Thai and, “Anything spicy. People love spicy!” In fact, Chaiyos offers an unusual challenge for guests who are up to it. In their spicy heat range of 1-100, diners who order a level of 30 or higher and finish the entire plate receive the privilege of having their picture taken and added to the wall of champions of hotness. This challenge developed because, Poopae tells me, “We want to make a memory for our customers.” Although I am not yet up for a spicy challenge, and Chaiyos does offer an array of more subtle flavors, a recent sushi combo I ordered, The Love Roll, also featured spicy tuna and spicy crab topped with warm, baked seafood. And, I suppose any item named The Love Roll should be warm and spicy.
Chaiyos is open Monday through Saturday from 11:00-9:00 and the food is cooked to order. “We have a Thai chef, full of passion.” But mainly, Poopae continues, “We want to keep our restaurant small and family style. Those of us who work here are like a family, and we want our customers to feel at home here. We feel like that is the way for us to be sustainable in our business and to be here for the long term.”
So, go on now, and make your way to Chaiyos. Are you up for the challenge?