Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down
A Sampling of Thai Restaurants Around Austin
America just can't seem to get enough of Thai food. Over the past decade, the addictive Asian cuisine - a scintillating interplay of exotic flavors, aromas, and textures - has gone mainstream in the U.S. While demand has filled bookstores across the country with publications on Thai cookery, Thai restaurateurs have ventured beyond the limits of major cities such as New York and Los Angeles and into the strip malls of suburbia. Here in Austin and the surrounding area, no less than seven Thai restaurants have opened within the last five years; together with vanguards Little Thailand, Satay, Bangkok Cuisine, and Thai Kitchen, these new eateries pepper the map from as far "up" as Cedar Park to as far "down" as Stassney Lane.
Yet with the exception of pad Thai, Thailand's national noodle dish made famous by Bangkok's street vendors, Thai cuisine remains largely enigmatic in America. Although it is often perceived to be a fiery variant of Chinese food, in fact only a few elements - most notably noodles and stir-fries - owe their introduction to the Chinese. And like influences from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Portugal, these foreign components have been adapted to help forge a distinctive cuisine marked by an all-important balance of salty, sour, sweet, and spicy flavors. To achieve this harmony, each Thai cook relies not only on such essential seasonings as chile peppers, fish sauce, basil, mint, cilantro, lemon grass, lime leaves, tamarind, and the ginger-like root galanga, but also largely on personal instinct, which accounts for the greatly varying renditions of even the most basic dishes. (For more details about Thai cuisine, see sidebar.)
Of course, the best way to get to know Thai food is to eat it. And that's just what we did. From soothing coconut curries to scorching papaya salads, members of the Chronicle food staff (Rebecca Chastenet de Géry, Meredith Phillips, section editor Virginia Wood, and myself) recently explored the menus of 11 Thai eateries in the Austin area. And be it in the heart of the city at the toney Thai Passion or in the country at the ever-so-modest Little Thailand, we discovered plenty of reasons why Thai food is making itself at home in central Texas. -Patrick Earvolino
4315 Caldwell Ln., in Garfield, 247-3855
Mon-Sat, 11am-2pm, 6-9pm
Who could imagine that some of the best Thai food in the Lone Star state can be found in a mobile home set next to the water tower of the tiny town of Garfield? In 1980, retired air force Major Dick Simcoe and his wife Surin opened their cozy little restaurant down the road from the Bergstrom Air Force Base. After 15 years there, the Simcoes were forced to relocate five miles eastward - near the water tower at the intersection of Highway 71 and Caldwell Lane - in order to make way for Austin's new airport. But the move hasn't affected the restaurant's spectacular food, nor has it altered the ingratiating spirit of its owners, who make even first-time visitors feel like part of the family.
Thai native Surin and her sister Malee prepare all the items on Little Thailand's one-page menu from scratch, beginning as soon as the food is ordered. As knee-buckling aromas start to emanate from the kitchen, diners are invited to hang out in the lounge attached to the rear of the restaurant. Smart patrons will ask Dick to mix up some of his killer Thai bloody marys and chew the fat while perhaps spinning a few 45s on the country jukebox or tossing a few darts. Also, Hungarian ghoulash, Frito pie, and other pub grub are available for Thai food-o-phobes who, if hungry, may wish to take a baby step and order the Thai T-Bone, a one-pound steak cooked in a wok, smothered with mushrooms and onions, and served with rice noodles for $12.95.
Make no mistake, however, delicious and authentic Thai cuisine is the main show at Little Thailand. Surin's pad Thai (spelled Pot Thai on the menu, $6.95) is superlative, the lightly stir-fried noodles seasoned with just the right amount of sweetness to sing when doused with a squirt of sour lime, while the spicy/crunchy/salty papaya salad (Some Tom, $5.95) affects tears of sweaty rapture. In the Laht Na ($6.95), lean slices of beef and broccoli join wide rice noodles in a mouth-watering gravy spiked with white pepper; and two generous cups of marvelous, creamy curry - one red, one yellow - come in a single order ($7.95), giving diners a good chance to compare these two staples of Thai fare. As an added bonus, customers can boost the heat level of any dish to mind-expanding proportions thanks to the incendiary habañero sauce and crushed dried chile condiments derived from the owners' personal harvest. -P.E.
20 Buttercup Creek Blvd.,
331-3810 or 331-3859
To dine at Poothai requires a road trip of sorts for Central and South Austinites, but the authentic fare this family-run restaurant whips up in its Cedar Park kitchen is well worth the travel effort. The small location's extensive menu bears a notice soliciting patience from diners in exchange for "some of the best home-styled Thai cooking in Cedar Park." Heed the message, order a variety of items, and enjoy what's in store for you.
On the appetizer front, the Tod Mun ($4.25) - six golden fish balls with just a suspicion of chiles - makes for an excellent beginning. The aromatic Tom Ka Ga soup ($5.75) displays an exquisite balance of flavors, among them the smooth richness of coconut milk and the clean tang of lemongrass and galanga. An entrée of beef Larb ($6.75) piled high with minced cilantro ranks high on the heat scale, and the toasted rice, a principal component of the popular dish, is reminiscent of toasted nuts. A second entrée, the milder Moo Kee Mao ($5.95), makes up for its lack of fire by packing a powerful herbal punch. The preparation of sautéed pork and tender bamboo shoots is triumphantly perfumed with basil, and the steaming platter's heady aroma acts as a palate teaser throughout the meal.
In the way of atmosphere, Poothai feels like the family-run place it is. Mom works magic in the kitchen, Pop holds down the front of the house, and daughter takes orders and offers suggestions matter-of-factly. The somber restaurant is generally well-populated if short of bustling, although it's likely just a matter of time before the trek to Poothai becomes a routine dining pilgrimage for Thai-craving Austinites, transforming the restaurant into a crowded favorite. -Rebecca Chastenet de Géry
620 Congress, 472-1224
Mon-Thu, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm;
Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10:30pm;
Sat, 5-10:30pm; Sun, 5-10pm
For entrées, we chose chicken Larb ($10.95) and Pud-Kee-Mow ($8.95): flat noodles stir-fried with Thai holy basil, tomato, onion, bell pepper, and chile pepper. We ordered the latter with shrimp, which arrived perfectly tender, and the noodle dish on the whole seemed like Thai comfort food, so sweet and rich that we wondered whether it had been cooked in beef broth. Even after our entrées arrived, we kept returning to our soups and the fried fishcakes appetizer Tod Mun ($3.95) and its accompanying sweet cucumber and peanut sauce. The coconut curls from the drink came in handy late in the meal, combatting the searing heat of the larb. Thai Passion is pricier than most of Austin's other Thai eateries, but the location and atmosphere make it a reasonable option for a moderately priced special occasion. The menu is user-friendly and even ventures into the nontraditional. For example, the penne tossed with coconut milk, raisins, and pineapple is unlike anything you'll find elsewhere in town. Diners interested in creating authentic Thai food in their own kitchens should be on the lookout for the upcoming access TV cooking show All Thai-ed Up in the Kitchen, starring Thai Passion co-owners Joe Rubio and Ped Phomavong. -Meredith Phillips
Thai Village Restaurant
6406 N. I-35 #1550, 452-3888
Mon-Thu, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm; Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5-11pm; Sat, 11am-11pm
This comfortable, attractive little spot may be Austin's newest Thai eatery. The personable young proprietor Scott Lintakoon learned the business with in-laws in Houston's Morningside Thai restaurant before striking out on his own here. He took over the former Cafe di Roma location with little fanfare late in 1997 and began building a loyal clientele with personable service and elegantly presented food. While the detailed Thai Village menu features many of the traditional dishes to be found in other local Thai places, the cloth-covered tables, soft lighting, and sophisticated food presentation create a pleasant, upscale atmosphere at a still very affordable price.
We began the meal with a Combination Tray for two ($9.95), offering samples of most of the appetizers: sa-te, fresh cheese rolls, lightly fried spring rolls, delicate baby egg rolls, tod-mun, and Thai toast with a sweet, spicy peanut sauce, a pungent Thai-style pickled cucumber sauce, and sweet and sour sauce. The bountiful array of tasty tidbits arrived on a round sectional platter with a dancing blue flame in the center for a last-minute searing of the skewered chicken. My usual prejudice against this kind of appetizer is that restaurants often use frozen, pre-packaged bites, but I need not have worried. Each delicious item was fresh and handmade - probably a prep cook's nightmare, but a diner's delight - and plenty of food for three or four curious people.
Dinner entrées range from $5.95-$8.50 for vegetable, rice, and noodle dishes and $7.50-$14.95 for poultry, pork, beef, and seafood items. Portions are generous and beautifully garnished. On my first visit, I enjoyed the Lime Shrimp ($12.95), an inviting melange of marinated, char-broiled shrimp in lime gravy with straw mushrooms, carrots, and pepper strips. The plentiful, plump shrimp were perfectly cooked, and the vegetables retained a crisp texture in the subtle, slightly sweet sauce. My friend equates Thai food with hot food, so he chose the Tiger Cry ($14.95), which was marked with two stars to identify a spicy dish. In this rendition of the traditional dish, a half-pound of sliced beef tenderloin is char-broiled, tossed with sautéed potatoes, onions, scallions, mushrooms, peppers, and basil leaves, and topped with a piquant green chile pepper sauce. The dish manages to satisfy the Texas diner's craving for a robust meat-and-potatoes dish while also being totally Thai.
On a return visit, I savored the Roast Duck Curry ($10.95) with tender, succulent pieces of duck breast in a molten red-gold sauce of red chile paste and coconut milk with chunks of pineapple, tomatoes, jalapeño pepper, and basil leaves. Red curry lovers, this sauce is not to be missed. And the restaurant will provide as much rice as it takes to absorb every last divine drop. We also sampled the house version of the national dish, pad Thai ($6.95 chicken, $7.95 shrimp), and received a huge pile of Thai rice noodles tossed with sautéed chicken chunks, tofu, egg, and scallions seasoned with chopped peanuts and a sweet, spicy peanut sauce - a full, filling meal in itself. The entire Thai Village menu is available for take-out and their lunch entrée specials, which range from $5.25-$6.50, include entrée, soup or salad, appetizer, and steamed or fried rice. Thai food lovers should put this charming new restaurant on their list of things to do now. -Virginia B. Wood
Classic Thai Restaurant
9616 N. Lamar Blvd, 491-8856
Mon, 11am-2:30pm; Tue-Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm; Sat-Sun, noon-9pm
Fresh food and extremely affordable prices make this 10-month-old fledgling well worth a voyage to the intersection of Rutland and Lamar. Owner and cook Jodie Balthis puts a premium on the quality of her ingredients that shows. Even the items on the daily lunch buffet, all of which Balthis begins making at 10:30am each morning, manage to look and taste exceptional. The Tom Kha is fantastic, with the soup's broth of coconut milk, lime, and galanga exploding on the tongue, while the Masaman curry with tofu rocks, teaming spongy pieces of bean curd with peanuts and tender vegetables in a sweet, aromatic base. And both the Chicken Larb and the Chicken in Green Curry (Gai Ped Kang) feature tender breast meat only, seasoned smartly with fresh herbs, roasted rice powder, and lime in the former and stewed in a rich, vibrant sauce in the latter.
The restaurant's comprehensive menu is perfect for diners looking to plumb the depths of Thai cuisine. Interspersing shrimp, scallops, squid, fishballs, and vegetables within a mound of stir-fried noodles, the Classic Thai Noodles ($6.95) are a seafood lover's heavenly alternative to pad Thai; the flavorful beef in red curry (Pa Nang Nua) rests surprisingly lightly on the palate and comes garnished with slivers of the fragrant kiffer lime leaf (called `markroot' at Classic Thai); and particularly pleasing to eye and tastebud alike are the exquisite Thai Steamed Dumplings ($3.95) - delicate wonton skins wrapped around a delicious filling of ground pork, crab, and shrimp to resemble miniature carrot-topped gunny sacks. Although for the most part typical strip-mall stuff, the restaurant's atmosphere is noteworthy for its cleanliness, a fitting backdrop for Balthis' wholesome fare. -P.E.
Satay, The Asian Cookery
3202 West Anderson Ln., 467-6731
Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm;
Sat, 5-11pm; Sun, noon-3pm, 5-10pm
Satay is indeed an "Asian Cookery," melding worldly influences from Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the Philippines. But as a Thai-owned and -run operation, the Satay corporation (which includes the restaurant as well as a successful commercial line of Thai food products) specializes in the traditional cuisines of Thailand. The Thai influence is not limited to a specific region of Thailand, but offers curries, noodle dishes, stir-fries, salads, and the dish for which the restaurant is named, satay: skewers of marinated meat or shrimp grilled over charcoal (Satay dinner, $9.95).
Satay's version of pad Thai ($7.95) combines vermicelli noodles with bits of tofu, egg, cilantro, green onion, and peanuts, topped with shrimp and tossed with a chile and tamarind sauce. But limiting your choice to the standby Thai dish in the face of such variety seems scandalous. The curious eater might opt instead for an assortment of soups and appetizers à la carte, and share an entrée or two around the table, thereby honoring the Thai tradition of rot chart, the harmony of flavor and texture. The tom yum soup, with hot chile bits and shrimp in a lemongrass broth, presents hot and sour flavors, while the chicken-basil dumplings satisfy the hot and sweet portion of your palate.
The Tod Mun ($3.95) - deep-fried whitefish cakes with curry and green beans - are a favorite, while the Miang Khum ($4.25) makes a fresh and healthy appetizer, combining fresh spinach leaves with toasted coconut, peanuts, lime, ginger, and garlic. Vegetarians will find an accomodating menu; every dish can be prepared with tofu or vegetables instead of fish, shrimp, chicken, or meat. Satay also boasts a full bar, and a half-price appetizer happy hour Monday-Thursday, 5-7pm. -M.P.
South: 801 E. Wm. Cannon, 445-4844
Mon-Fri,11:30am-2:30 pm, 5-9:45pm;
Westlake: 3437 Bee Caves Rd., 328-538
Mon-Sat, 11:30am-2:30pm, 5-9:45pm;
Central: 3009 Guadalupe, 474-2575
Mon-Sun, 11:30am-2:30pm, 5-9:45pm
A veteran of Austin's Thai scene, Thai Kitchen restaurant family counts three locations: central, west, and south. Although the menu is the same at each spot, the kitchen staff, of course, is different, and the food quality varies from restaurant to restaurant. Thai Kitchen's original spot on William Cannon has been serving straightforward Thai dishes for 15 years, and the restaurant continues to please. Our waitress suggested we begin our meal with the unusual appetizer Mee Grob, a sweet and sour specialty of crunchy, virtually caramelized noodles matted with shrimp and chile flakes served alongside crisp bean sprouts. To the American palate, the dish makes for a strange debut given its sweetness, but doused with ample fresh lime juice it becomes addictive.
We followed the toothsome starter with a generous bowl of Tom Yum Goong afloat with fish, shrimp, green-lipped mussels and scallops. In the tradition of well-executed Thai soups, it provided a kaleidoscope of tastes and textures. Lime leaf and lemon grass provided an astringent touch, and we drank the broth down eagerly once the seafood was gone. Thai Kitchen's Chicken Larb was slightly meek in the way of spice, but long on garlic with a pleasant, fresh citrus finish.
Lunch at Thai Kitchen's central location on the Drag has become my answer to healthful, inexpensive fare just a few blocks from home. As at each of the other Thai Kitchen locations, the restaurant boasts a special lunch menu ranging from $4.75-$5.25 that includes the soup of the day or a salad, rice, and a vegetable egg roll in addition to one of the 35 Thai entrée possibilities. (A dozen or so Chinese dishes are available as well.) Admittedly, lunches at Thai Kitchen Central are rarely as commendable as my dinner at the south location, but the Phad Plick Khing, a fiery blend of pork, green beans, and markroot tossed in a red hot curry sauce always pleases, as does the Thai green curry with chicken, zucchini, bamboo strips, basil, and coconut milk. -R.C.
9041 Research Blvd., 832-9722
Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm, 5-10 pm;
Available with or without meat, Bangkok's Pad Thai ($6.50) is memorable. Thin rice noodles are quickly tossed in a screaming-hot wok to develop a toothsome pan-seared flavor, then stirred with scrambled egg, spicy tofu, and shrimp and set next to a pile of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime. Meat eaters will savor the Pad Gra Prow ($7.95), bite-size chunks of the meat of your choice stir-fried with licorice-like Thai holy basil, garlic, and bell peppers in a rich sauce of tomato and fish sauce. For a special treat, top your order with a crispy fried egg, a favorite Thai custom. -P.E.
121 W. Fifth, 476-2356
Mon-Fri, 11am-3pm, 6-11pm;
Rumors of Thai Soon's imminent closing have been quelled - temporarily. The downtown restaurant was nearly bought out earlier this year by a company that wanted to use the increasingly upscale address for a taco bar, but the deal didn't go through. For now, Thai Soon remains, but the owner is considering a remodeling of both the interior and the menu in the next four months. Soon, the restaurant may host acoustic performances and serve Western, as well as Thai, foods.
For the time being, Thai Soon continues to concentrate on vegetarian and seafood dishes, a restriction which doesn't cramp the Thai lifestyle too severely. We began our meal with a tureen of Shrimp Coconut Soup ($6.95); other than the fact that we could have used a strainer to remove the soup's ample hunks of ginger and stalks of lemon grass, the restaurant's version of tom kha did not disappoint.
The menu features several salads, including a Spicy Squid Salad and a Grilled Shrimp Salad ($7.50 each). We ordered the latter and were pleased by its combination of light citrus flavors, grilled shrimp, and fresh herbs. The bulk of the dish was made up of lettuce, carrots, shrimp, red onions, and bean sprouts, overlaid by Thai holy basil and cilantro leaves and bordered by rounds of cucumber and tomato. As an appetizer, each of Thai Soon's salads would serve at least three.
Spicy Crab Noodles with Chili, Garlic, and Egg ($6.95) proved to be an Eastern version of tuna casserole, which is not to say it wasn't our favorite: rice noodles bound with egg and shreds of sweet crab interspersed with slices of jalapeño and garnished with lime and beans sprouts. Curries, fried rices, and stir-fries fill out the menu, which we considered moderate in price as well as spice - all of the food we ordered with medium heat barely registered any. -M.P.
Thai Garden Restaurant
5517 Manchaca Rd., 326-5205
Mon-Thu, 11am -9pm;
Had it not been for this assignment, I might never have noticed Thai Garden. The unassuming building that has been home to several restaurants over the years stands well back from the intersection of Manchaca & Stassney in a busy southwestern suburb where I rarely have occasion to go. When the food staff divided up the list of local Thai restaurants, it became my job to find it. The interior of the restaurant is fairly plain, with fluorescent lighting, unadorned walls, and mismatched tables and chairs. We were the only table for most of the cold, damp Wednesday evening, and the manager periodically shuffled cards for a solitaire game at a table nearby. It was somewhat like eating in the home of relatives who weren't entirely pleased to see us. I'd invited a friend who serves as my Asian food expert to join me and we used hearty, homestyle Thai dishes to ward off the weather and the chilly reception.
The menu is not particularly large or detailed, but it does cover the most of the traditional Thai dishes at very affordable prices. Dinner began with orders of Steamed Dumplings ($3.00) and Meat Spring Rolls ($2.50). The dumplings were plump, meaty packages in a puddle of subtly flavored broth, and the spring roll held a fresh mixture of noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork, and came with a thin, piquant peanut sauce for dipping. A chalkboard near the cash register announcing the dinner special Pa-lard-Prik (whole crispy fish at $13.95) with snapper in Thai hot sauce had piqued my interest, and I was well rewarded in my choice. The fish arrived in a light, crisp coating festooned with sautéed pieces of green pepper in a fiery pool of silken sauce made with red chili paste and coconut milk. The filets had been cut away from the skeleton in such a way as to ensure that I encountered very few bones, and there was a mountain of rice with which to savor the remaining sauce when all the delicately fried fish was gone. My friend chose Pud Grapow ($5.95), which featured chicken pieces sautéed with strips of relatively mild jalapeño, garlic, onion, and basil leaves. While the chicken was filling and spicy enough to fight the cold, there was very little basil flavor in a dish named for that ingredient.
Thai Garden is a plain and inexpensive restaurant serving simple renditions of traditional Thai dishes that can also produce an occasional diamond, such as the crispy fish. The restaurant does not serve beer and wine, though diners are welcome to bring their own. While we were one of the only tables on a weeknight, the take-out trade seemed brisk, which is understandable considering the prices.-V.W.
Thai Noodles, Etc. House
2602 Guadalupe, 494-1011
The brainchild of Satay owner Foo Swasdee, this casual, inexpensive campus hangout recently began serving Austin's first Asian breakfast to complement its daytime repertoire of healthful Thai noodle dishes. From 7:30-11am weekdays and 7:30am-noon weekends, diners can start their day with an bowl of mild rice soup (Kao Thom) or rice porridge (Jook) - a popular breakfast dish in China and Thailand also known as congee - mixed with choice of egg, meat, shrimp, tofu, and/or vegetables and topped with cilantro, ginger, garlic, and white pepper. Possibly more confounding yet more agreeable to the Western notion of daybreak is the pleasant Roti Roll, a Thai crepe wrapped around bananas, sweetened condensed milk, and a fried egg.
For lunch and dinner, the restaurant offers three basic categories of dishes to choose from: Thai noodle soups, dry noodle bowls (i.e., noodle soups without the broth), and stir-fried noodles. Each category features popular types of Thai pasta, such as flat rice noodles (guey teaw), rice vermicelli (sen mee), and egg noodles (bah mee), either immersed in or seasoned with an assortment of light broths and sauces. Examples include the Tom Yum Guey Teaw ($6.25) - sliced chicken breast, shrimp, imitation crab, and fresh vegetables in a sweet and spicy tom yum sauce - as well as the popular Pad Thai With Tofu ($4.95), one of many vegetarian dishes offered.
Thai Noodles also serves as an outlet for the sale of Satay's award-winning line of canned and jarred products. In addition to basic Thai soups (tom kha and tom yum) and curries (red, yellow, green, and Panang are all available), Satay's milieu includes various Thai-accented marinades, hot sauces, and salsas, such as the distinctive Jungle Salsa and the exotic Roasted Coconut Salsa, as well as Foo's tasty and low-fat pad Thai stir-fry sauce, which makes whipping up a plate of pad Thai at home a breeze.-P.E.