Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mai Thai: five minutes to happiness!

I have seen the future of Thai food happiness in Portland, and by lucky coincidence it is about a five minute drive from our house! A newish place called Mai Thai (shocking play on words, I know) opened a couple of months ago down on 31st and SE Belmont. Both w and I are huge Thai food aficionados, but here, like everywhere in America, you have to wade through rivers of mediocrity to find anything of quality. I had gotten a couple of to-go orders in the last three weeks from Mai Thai and was very impressed. Taking into account that no restaurant food eaten at home is as good as having it at the source, this was still really flavorful, interesting, and just plain good. I found one dish last week called Pad Prik King (c3 on their menu) which was a large serving of just-right green beans in a house made chili sauce with prawns. Two bites in I was already wondering when I could have it again. Instant food addiction!

So last night w and I decided to have the dine in experience and made the mercifully short drive. Their dining room is very nicely done, with nice touches like silk tablecloths and throws over the chairs, but not too over-the-top like some places. Just comfortable. We started in with an appetizer of Toa Hoo Tod (menu item #3, pic above left), which was light, pillowy golden brown fried tofu with a perfectly balanced Thai sweet-sour sauce. The perfect start because it was flavorful but not filling, which as I understand it is the whole point of appetizers, right? We followed that with their squid salad (below right)...cooked squid with onion, mint leaves, lemon grass, tomatoes, chili paste and lime. An explosion of flavors, and even at "medium heat" not too hot, but with enough kick to have us sniffling ever so slightly. The squid was very fresh tasting with a perfect chew. Like everything we had this was a beautifully presented dish, thoughtfully plated for real visual appeal. The whole "eating with your eyes first" is clearly understood here.

Between courses, we were talking with our server who also owns the place with her family. They came up from Los Angeles recently, looking to do their own style of Thai cooking without getting lost in the maze that is Asian dining in L.A. The space on Belmont was an underperforming Chinese joint for years, and they did a great job of renovating. Plus what really sells me on a place like this was her insistence that they "do food we like to eat, not what people expect". I love that attitude, especially when it's executed as well as they do at Mai Thai.

So we were ready for more at this point. I of course had to satisfy my Pad Prik King jones and it was as good as the first time (left). Their chili paste sauce is so good, complex, incredibly flavorful but not overpowering, and the beans have nice bite without that annoying "squeek" you get when you bite into improperly cooked beans. We had it with prawns which I have to think is the way to go, but they also offer it with chicken or tofu. One of w's (and probably everyone's) benchmarks is Pad Thai, the ubiquitous but rarely well done item at every Thai restaurant. We ordered a plate (#39, below) and both were giving each other looks like "wow, someone has finally got it right!" The noodles were slightly chewy in a good way, the sauce piquant but not biting (maybe there was a tad too much sauce, but not enough to really detract). The serving was very generous as well, something that can be said for everything we had. The entrées in general run in the extremely reasonable $9-$14 range, and considering how good everything has been, this has to be considered one of Portland's food bargains. I've also tried the Fantastic Tofu (C1) which was just that, and a Mussamun Curry (35) which was the only average dish I've had off the menu. There are also desserts to be explored, but this night the stomach real estate was not to found. But you know I'll be back for it!

Mai Thai is one of those places you hope sticks around so you can see what develops. The staff is very friendly and ready with solid advice, like her suggestion that we try their whole sea bass, which we didn't but will next time because it's hard to find whole fried fish dome well, and I'm betting Mai Thai nails it!

Mai Thai
3104 SE Belmont Street

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