Conveniently located close to Austin Community College's Cedar Park campus, Thamnak Thai is an unassuming little place in a boring strip mall – the kind of place you might not even see if you didn't already know it was there. The interior is very basic casual-dining American: cushioned vinyl booths with honey-colored wood dividers, colonial-style chairs, and a little greenery here and there. Everything is clean and in good repair, but you would never know you were in a Thai restaurant if it weren't for the appetizing aromas coming from the kitchen.
The staff is welcoming, friendly, competent, and seem genuinely at ease. The menu is purely Thai (no sushi), and there's a good deal of variety in each major category: five soups, 11 noodle dishes, six curries, nine appetizers, and six house specialties, as well as four rice dishes and six salads.
For my appetizer I had the steamed dumplings ($4), and as soon as I saw them I knew this meal was going to be unusually good. The dumplings had been made to order, their outsides soft and tender, and their filling of pork, shrimp, bamboo, onions, mushrooms, and water chestnuts piping hot. But the clincher is the presentation: They're served floating in a light, "sweet" Thai soy sauce with micrograted carrot and plentiful fresh cilantro leaves.
Fresh herbs are integral to Thai cuisine, and my entrée, the superb pad kee mao ($8), has its share as well: Leaves of Thai sacred basil hide among the flat rice noodles and give the dish a heavenly flavor, along with stir-fried onion, broccoli, red pepper, garlic, and thinly shaved beef. The noodles used in the dish are fresh, never dried, and the flavor is outstanding. The pad kee mao isn't just good; it is the best version of this dish I have had to date, the kind of good you end up craving and driving all the way to Cedar Park to have again. This little place really impressed me; if you happen to live in the vicinity of Thamnak Thai, I have to admit I'm a little envious.
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