Food to Awaken the Senses

February 2024
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Paul Grimshaw

Blue Elephant Thai Cuisine offers a unique dining experience

A chilled, crunchy Green Papaya salad with crispy vegetable spring rolls started a meal that held all the flavors and ornate spectacle of Thailand.

With entrees that require special shipments of Thai coconuts and impossible to pronounce menu items (at least for me) filling three full pages, Blue Elephant Thai Cuisine in Murrells Inlet has been serving authentic Thai dishes for nearly 24 years, both challenging and enchanting guests who are willing to suspend their expectations of a typical dining experience.

Each meal is crafted by owner, host, server, chef, busboy and dishwasher, 79-year-old retired orthopedist Dr. “Doc” Paul Byington. His one-man show – he is the only staff – requires that his guests make reservations, which he carefully staggers from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. 7 days per week, unless he’s on a trip to Thailand. He can handle up to 15 guests’ meals at a time and does so with experience and proficiency that comes only from a lifetime of skill and capability.

High-maintenance diners who require everything to be just-so may want to try other options, but those willing to try new dishes with ancient origins will be rewarded with authentic dishes that speak to the true nature of Thai food. Don’t bring your credit card, by the way, only checks (yes, personal checks) and cash are accepted. Some of the Blue Elephant’s regular patrons have learned a few tricks, such as pre-ordering their favorite dishes, which speeds things up and is a help to Doc.

“I’ve had a restaurant in every city I ever practiced medicine,” said Dr. Byington, on a recent visit. He stopped by the table after the meal with a glass of wine in hand to share his story at the end of the night. Through a Kra-Dai Thai accent, Doc will tell any who will listen about his unusual, magical life, and the food from his native Thailand he so loves to create and share.

The non-descript restaurant’s exterior is one many have passed by without much thought, only the blue elephant and sign in the small parking lot giving any clue to what may be happening inside. But once through the door, the crisp linen, ornately set tables, beautiful Thai pottery and unusual wall décor surprise those who’ve made a reservation to give it a try.

Quiet Thai music plays softly as we were seated. In at 7:30 p.m., our party was the last table of the night and the only table currently being serviced. We asked suggestions of Doc and he offered three more, already deciding for us what we wanted. 

We were served a variety of dishes that came out staggered, like courses, all large enough to share. We started with Som Tum (a green papaya salad, which was sliced in crunchy strips, mixed with carrots, tomatoes, ground peanuts and chili peppers, served chilled, slightly sweet with a little tang), along with crispy spring rolls. Fifteen minutes later we were served Gai Pad Met Ma-Muang (chicken with cashews, onions, mushrooms, green onions, baby corn and lemon grass). A special dish of coconut shrimp red curry came next in a peeled Thai coconut bowl. None of the dishes were too spicy hot, a common fear for many who’ve been burned by spice while eating Thai food; however, if hot is what you want, Doc can accommodate. There are also strictly vegetarian dishes, tofu, noodles, fried rice dishes, seafood specialties, desserts, and much more. 

“I shortened my hours,” said Doc, “only take reservations, and find I’m getting new customers too. I’m happy.”

You will be too, now that you’re fully informed, understand the rules, and know a few of the tricks of this very unusual restaurant amid a sea of the same ol’ same ol’.

Blue Elephant Thai Cuisine serves beer and wine, is open from 5 p.m to 8 p.m. most nights, and requires reservations, patience, and an adventurous spirit.  

4493 US-17 Business, Murrells Inlet
(843) 651-5863
Hours:  5 p.m to 8 p.m. most nights, 
requires reservation.