New Downtown joint could Thai a little harder
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Oct. 21, 2011
Mai Thai207 San Jacinto #201, 482-8244
Monday-Wednesday, 11am-10pm; Thursday-Saturday, 11am-12mid; Sunday, noon-10pm
OK, so you're visiting Austin and staying in a hotel Downtown. You crave something Asian – maybe Thai, maybe Vietnamese – and don't want to spend a lot of money. Where do you go? Despite the nearly viral epidemic of new restaurants in Downtown Austin, there are very few good options for affordable Asian cuisine, overpriced sushi and chains excepted. For this reason, Mai Thai is a welcome new face in the Downtown dining scene. Close to offices, the convention center, hotels, and Sixth Street, no doubt Mai Thai benefits from pedestrian lunchtime business as well as tourist and entertainment traffic.
Mai Thai is the partnership of two seasoned restaurateurs – Opart Udomsatapol, owner of Ka-Prow in North Austin, and Supreedee Chantasu, formerly of Thamnak Thai in Cedar Park. Chantasu generally handles the kitchen management, while Udomsatapol oversees other aspects of the business. Recipes have been collected from both their families.
Mai Thai's recipes may be authentic, but whoever is actually executing them in the kitchen may not be tasting them first. Two separate lunch visits produced a mixed impression. The green curry ($8), for instance, looked splendid on our table, laden with thin slices of beef, bamboo shoots, and beautiful, tiny Thai eggplant quarters. The beef was chewy, though – it clearly had not been stewed long enough – and the eggplant was completely raw. A flat rice noodle dish with peppers, chili sauce, and onions, Pad Kee Mao ($8), seemed too greasy, though it had nice flavor. And the spring rolls ($4), stuffed only with meager slices of shrimp, iceberg lettuce, and unflavored rice noodles, were some of the most tasteless I've ever eaten. (I have had some pretty tasteless Thai food, in Thailand no less, but that was on a remote island where the only fresh foods available were shrimp, onions, cabbages, and tomatoes, and we had them at every meal for a week. There's no excuse for tasteless spring rolls when we have such a superabundance of ingredients available in this country.)
On the other hand, the thick Panang curry ($8) was exceptionally good, with a flavor that seemed slightly burnished, almost tangy. The beef we ordered in it was not at all chewy but tender and slow-simmered. Tom Yum soup ($4 a bowl, $9 a pot), a sweet-and-sour broth flavored with tomatoes, mushrooms, lime, and cilantro, was nicely balanced, though I would have preferred stronger lime and lemongrass flavors. Pad thai ($8), noodles fried with chopped peanuts, eggs, and bean sprouts, was also well executed. Tamarind or some other flavoring gave the dish a subtle sweetness that was quite pleasing.
The menu expands at dinner time to include a greater variety of appetizers and specials. We were impressed by the Num Tok ($10), a cold dish of thinly sliced beef, tossed with red onion, fish sauce, mint, lime leaves, cilantro, and ground toasted rice. However, the menu promised a cabbage salad on the side, and we were served old iceberg lettuce instead. A robust assortment of fish options is an aspect of the menu we found encouraging. Whole snapper in chili sauce ($15) and Andaman seafood stew ($15), tossed with basil, chili, and onions, are among the house specials. We tried salmon in a red curry sauce inflected with thin lime leaf slivers ($15). The sauce was good, but the salmon was definitely overcooked.
With its tempting menu, Mai Thai definitely has some promising moments, but for the time being, I think I'll leave it to the tourists.