Titaya's, Take Two
Was it worth the wait?
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., July 25, 2014
Tue..-Fri., 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm; Sat.-Sun., noon-3:30pm, 5-10pm
I'm not an expert on traditional Thai cuisine, but depending on how deep into retrograde Mercury has slipped, I average at least biweekly Thai meals. I dream of napalm-level curry, have a firm belief in the mystical healing powers of tom yum, and can sniff out a life-changing spring roll. Outside of these revelations, I have few loyalties. I'm a free agent, just looking for a quick galangal root bump, a sinus and soul cleansing hit. Still, Titaya's has been on my short list of favorites for years. Naturally, I was among the legions of adoring fans – and bandwagon creepers – who waited, patiently, for over a year, to return.
Before discussing the spiffed-up menu, we need to talk about "the remodel." When Titaya's shuttered their business for an upgrade on December 23, 2012, no one – not even Titaya – anticipated our cravings would take a year to be satiated. The pushed-back grand opening, liked by hundreds on an unofficial Facebook page, had several false alarms thanks to repeatedly blown inspection deadlines. Finally, Titaya's reopened on February 4, 2014. As soon as the news broke, the lines formed.
Titaya's brother, Ek Timrerk, now at Kin & Comfort, helped revamp the menu, which still offers a lengthy list of popular items, plus some new specialties. The lighter, brighter, and more modern dining space was opened up, though not enlarged by much (a surprising detail given those infamous wait times). Painted, black ceiling beams support an assortment of picture frames hovering parallel to the tables, joined by brightly colored paper and bare light bulbs. The updated bar is a focal point along the back wall, with a decent selection of wine, beer, and sake.
But does this shinier, more upscale Titaya's taste any fancier?
For an early Sunday dinner, we sampled two winners from the menu's "First Bites" small plate selections: five spinach dumplings with soy vinegar ($4.95) and shrimp Leafy Roll ($4.95). Their take on the spring roll was stuffed to the max, the plentiful mint a welcome surprise, and served with house peanut sauce. Next up, a few Thai standards – pad thai ($8.50) and gang kiew warn (green curry) ($9.95). Served in bright white ceramics, both ordered with chicken, plus fried tofu in the curry, the dishes were everything we'd hoped for, but neither was singularly mind-blowing.
A food writer could wax poetic about the hits and misses of any chef's rendition of a dish's intricate flavor profile – how it compares with this version or that one, how each is subject to generational differences and familial preferences, tied to memories and habits. But the bottom line is simple: I will return to Titaya's for their versions of my favorite dishes.
Rounding out the evening, the dessert menu is a must. The fried banana roll ($6.50) is served warm in a crispy tempura batter, topped with whipped cream and sitting on a strawberry drizzle; a creamy double scoop of house-made coconut ice cream is decorated with palm seeds and peanuts ($5.50).
A tricky way to test a restaurant is to order a fried fish specialty dish to go, but this one should have been an easy win. However, the pla sum rod ($13.95) ordered during my take-out trial was a letdown. Though smartly packaged to prevent the house tamarind sauce from saturating the fried fish, the resulting dish was still too sweet, and the batter an unfortunate reminder of childhood encounters with Dairy Queen's chicken strips. On the upside, this dedicated member of the tom yum gai fan club (bowl $3.95), is happy to report Titaya's version is still one of the best in town: truly robust and craveworthy. Other menu items of note: sweet corn taro fritter appetizer ($5.95) – think Thai fries with sweet chili plum dipping sauce; classic Thai fried rice ($8.95) – standard issue, but a great value; pad puk ($9.95) – a simple, tasty stir fry brimming with veggies.
Though many Austin hot spots with notorious lines have earned their queues of loyalty with legitimately delicious specialties – Titaya's included – there are other restaurants with comparable offerings. I've driven by many times to see lines out Titaya's doors, but shockingly, on my visit I didn't wait a single minute to be seated. The staff, clad in all black, was attentive and prompt, with the only service glitch coinciding with the dinner crowd streaming in. On a related note, they're still hiring staff.
Despite the shiny new interior of a still relatively nondescript North Lamar building (one of many contributions to Titaya's folklore of mystery and intrigue), Titaya's 2.0 does not indicate they strive to be anything other than exactly what they are: one of Austin's shining stars of reliably delicious Thai food. Haters gonna hate, I'm guessing, but Titaya's proved that even a yearlong sabbatical can't disrupt the loyalty of their fans, myself included.