DEE DEE takes customers to Thailand’s countryside through family recipes
by Regine Malibiran
Fortunately for Austinites, the city does not lack for Thai food options. Austin’s selection spans from upscale restaurants to casual brick-and-mortars to food trucks. DEE DEE, which means “good good,” is a food truck located at Radio Coffee & Beer on Manchaca. Known for its pad kaprow (spicy stir-fried pork), DEE DEE serves up authentic flavors from Thailand’s northern countryside.
Lakana Trubiana, the mastermind and chef behind DEE DEE, hails from a family of farmers in Thailand’s Isaan region. With its unapologetic spiciness and aromatic sticky rice, Isaan cuisine is one of the most popular and widespread cuisines in the country. As a young girl, Lakana learned to cook her people’s food from the experts: her mother and grandmother.
She met her husband and business partner, Justin Trubiana, while he was volunteering to teach English and math to children in Thailand. The couple eventually married, and Lakana left Asia for the first time to permanently move to the United States.
“At first when I moved here, it was really hard, because I’m not used to American food. It’s very different,” remembers Lakana. “The food that I would eat was from me cooking it for myself and feeding my family [and friends]. They really enjoyed it. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we do something that shares with all the people too?’”
Though the couple firmly believes in the value and marketability of Isaan cuisine in the United States, there were some (both Thai and American) who cautioned them that it would be difficult to create a sustainable business around food that was so far outside the typical American palate.
Despite the well-intentioned warnings in the early days, Lakana and Justin don’t ever intend to compromise on their food. Their menu replicates dishes that Isaan people eat in their homes and with their families; though if you ask nicely, they might lower the spice levels on some recipes to accommodate you.
DEE DEE opened three years ago, and the Trubianas were immediately “in over [their] heads” and would typically stay up until the early-morning hours to keep up with their customer flow. The couple’s dedication to serving authentic Isaan food undoubtedly bolsters their popularity, but it also presents a unique challenge for their head chef. Lakana doesn’t cut corners when it comes to the quality of her food, and that includes making everything by hand. For example, the fish sauce served with the chef’s favorite dish, som tom isaan (papaya salad), is her own creation. She ferments fish in jars for more than a year to develop the sauce’s flavors before serving it to her customers. The rice served with most of their dishes is roasted for three hours, which requires constant supervision in order to get the right texture and aroma. For Lakana, faithfully following recipes and cooking with labor-intensive processes serves as a love letter not only to her customers but also to her homeland. In the midst of all the Thai options in Austin, DEE DEE’s food stands out because of the chef’s commitment to her style and the comfort that guests derive through her home cooking.
After three years of creating a name for itself in Austin’s food-truck scene, DEE DEE recently added a traditional charcoal oven to its arsenal. The menu now includes barbecue rotisserie chicken, which the Trubianas have been perfecting for the past few years. The chicken is spatchcocked (cut down the center and laid flat) in order to keep the meat juicy and the skin crispy, rubbed down with a homemade lemongrass mixture and marinated for 24 hours. It’s then roasted in a traditional charcoal oven at low heat for two hours and served with both a spicy and sweet sauce so that customers can choose their heat level.
If DEE DEE’s original menu was Lakana’s love letter to Isaan, the rotisserie chicken is the product of combining her heritage with her creativity and experimentations as a chef. As the business grows, the Trubianas aim to eventually open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant. In the meantime, you can stop by Radio Coffee & Bar on the weekends to enjoy Thai food straight from Isaan.