Senae Thai Bistro’s Buizer Family Brings Local, Sustainable Thai to Downtown Tucson

Though Thai cuisine has a fiery reputation, Senae Thai Bistro quietly opened its doors to the public July 7 at 63 E. Congress St., former home of On a Roll Sushi. However, Senae won’t fly under the radar long. With a casual atmosphere, quality ingredients, and complex mouth-watering flavors, Senae strikes the refined balance needed to keep them busy through their planned grand opening in the fall.

“My objective is to allow the natural flavor of food to shine,” said chef and co-owner Dee Buizer. “The herbs and spices should enhance, not cover the flavors.”

Dee’s Thai background runs deep to her hometown of Bangkok, Thailand’s metropolis melting pot of cuisine. In 1987, she opened her first restaurant, Sweet Basil in Berkeley, California. With the help of family, she went on to open several additional restaurants in California, Maryland, and Arizona.

Most recently, Dee opened Soi Four in Scottsdale while her husband Jim Buizer was the senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University. However, Jim eventually accepted a position as a climate scientist at the University of Arizona, bringing the family to Tucson.

“We’re going to retire in Tucson,” Dee said. “We love it here.”

Though Bangkok has a reputation as the street food capital of the world, the Buizers are interested in bringing finer Thai dining to Tucson. With a background in food and wine cities such as San Francisco, they certainly have an eye for quality. Additionally, Dee’s cooking experience of over three decades makes it look easy.

Interior at Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Interior at Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“We want to create that overall experience with every little step,” Jim said. “You can pair nice local draft beers and wine with Thai.”

After two-and-a-half years living in Tucson and examining over 20 restaurant space options, they chose Senae’s current location in downtown Tucson.

“The people downtown are committed to helping downtown be a better place,” Jim said. “Janos comes in and eats here, we eat at Downtown Kitchen.”

In addition to downtown camaraderie, family plays a strong role at Senae. The word ‘Senae’ is a hybrid of Dee’s children’s names, Sean and Danae. It also means ‘charming’ in Thai within the context of a space or location.

While Dee is the commander in the kitchen, Jim and Sean run front-of-house operations. Danyela (Danae) runs public relations and social media.

Family is more than kinship, however. Jim’s career in sustainability has helped influence Dee’s cooking with ingredients from the neighborhood.

“We partner with the University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program, which helps us get herbs and vegetables like Thai chiles, water spinach, and Thai basil,” Dee said.

Those ingredients are grown only two miles away at Manzo Elementary School, which was a recipient of the Best Green School 2012 award by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools.

“It connects us with the community and it helps us maintain what we need,” Jim said.

Som Thum at Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Som Thum at Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)

While local beer is on tap, bottles of Singha Pilsner from Thailand are also available. A cocktail menu utilizing Thai flavors, such as kaffir lime and lemongrass, is also in the works.

The menu offers familiar Thai classics such as pad thai (stir-fried rice noodles), tom kha gai (chicken coconut soup), and som thum (green papaya salad). However, less common cuts of meat in Tucson Thai are available via the panang short ribs, kae yang (lamb chops), and pla rad kang (salmon).

Happy hour from 4 – 6 p.m. offers Thai tapas and drink specials. The makeurh ping (grilled eggplant), paupia goong (shrimp roll), and mu kra tiem (garlic pork riblets) are all perfect accompaniments for a cold one. Beers and wine by the glass are $1 off, while well cocktails are $2 off.

For those who prefer their beer with a pepper-induced endorphin rush, Senae is ready.

“We’ve noticed that Tucsonans can handle more spice that Scottsdale,” Jim said. They’ll make anything as hot as customers want, even if it’s too hot for the chef to handle.

“I can’t even eat Thai spicy,” Dee said. “Our heat scale goes from zero to four-plus. Anything above four, eat at your own risk.”

Senae Thai Bistro is located at 63 E. Congress St. and is open Monday through Saturday . Happy hour runs 4 – 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.  Keep up with Senae Thai Bistro on Facebook. For more information, visit senaethai.com.

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com.

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