Foodies, food lovers and food geeks who’ve been around town for a while will recall the happy shock that comes with the discovery of an ethnic spot that stands out from the pack: A new arrival with food preparation and style that hint at something special going on in the kitchen.
So it was with Vietnam Kitchen, almost a generation ago now, around the same time as the Mayan Gypsy truck went land-based with its first bricks-and-mortar location. More recently, we’ve seen it with Saffron’s for Iranian and Red Pepper for hardcore authentic Chinese.
In each case, the food, the mood and the service — but especially the food — signal that this place is, well, different.
Now welcome another ethnic standout, TanThai Cuisine of Thailand. It’s been in its shopping-center quarters on Charlestown Pike, north of New Albany, for close to a year now. But word of mouth travels slowly when there’s a broad river to cross, and TanThai remains unfamiliar to most of Louisville’s ethnic-food fanciers.
I expect this unreasonable condition won’t persist long now that the word is getting out. We’re not talking safari distances here: In one of our last of several visits, on a drizzly, misty day with moderately heavy traffic on the Kennedy Bridge, it took us only 15 minutes to get over to TanThai from St. Matthews, and a bit less to return home to Crescent Hill.
Is it worth the trip? Bwahahaha! Reader Mike Norman, who tipped me off to TanThai, expressed it well in this song of praise: “I’ve been there a couple of times, and each time I go, I end up going a couple more times over the next week because I forget how good the food is. … It seems like the food is set apart by its freshness. A lot of food seems like the flavor comes from the heavy use of sauces, but none of the food that I have had from this place has ever been like that. I think it is one of the best Thai restaurants around.”
That was praise enough to lure me across the bridge, and TanThai’s food and friendly Hoosier-style service were more than enough to bring me back.
The place is bright and clean, a dozen mahogany-look tables with black chairs are separated into intimate dining sections in an offbeat way, with a half-dozen translucent window-curtain “sheers” hanging from the ceilings, swinging gently in the breeze. Service is welcoming — born-in-the-USA locals by day, aided by the owners’ delightfully mature grade-school-age son at night.
The menu is relatively brief and serves for both lunch and dinner; a few dishes are available in smaller portions for a cut-rate $6.99 at lunch. Evenings, a dozen entrees range in price from $7 (for stir-fried mixed veggies with chili-garlic oyster sauce) to $10.50 (for pan-browned salmon strips with tamarind shallot sauce, or for the pad Thai option with shrimp). Several items are vegetarian, and eight or nine appetizers and dinner-size Thai soups are $3.99 (for crispy egg rolls or spring rolls) to $9.50 (for Yum-Tah-Lay seafood salad or Tohm-Yum-Goong or Tohm-Khar-Gai, Thai shrimp or chicken soups).
We’ve cut a swathe through the menu with consistent delight, and chances are we’ll keep going back until we’ve sampled it all.
Retro melamine dishes are used for service, a colorful mix of tomato-soup, key lime, ballpark mustard and cornflower blue colors bold enough to brighten a cloudy day.
Pork satay ($6) is classic Thai food-on-a-stick, spicy marinated meat grilled until it’s sizzling and crisp, served with a sweet-hot curry peanut sauce.
Tohm-Yum-Goong ($9.50 for a full order, gratis as a smaller accompaniment with lunch) was a delicious, creamy soup, based on coconut milk with the piquant addition of fiery Thai curry spice; it contained bits of boneless chicken and aromatic lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
A chicken wings appetizer ($6.99) spoke more of Bangkok than Buffalo. Eight remarkably crispy fried wings were cloaked in sweet-hot honey-ginger sauce and served atop crispy white mee krob noodles with carrot and celery strips for munching.
Pad Thai ($10.50 with shrimp, $9.50 with chicken or vegetarian) is Thai home cooking at its best. TanThai’s version is reportedly based on a dish from a restaurant in Thailand so popular that people line up around the block for a taste of the pad Thai. Complex, subtle flavors and textures come together in a taste-bud symphony. Crisp bean sprouts are served alongside so you can mix them in with the soft, steaming rice noodles at the table, maintaining an intriguing contrast of textures that’s lost when the bean sprouts are stirred into the hot mix in the kitchen.
Another triumphant TanThai dish is black peppercorn beef ($9 for dinner, $6.99 as a lunch order). Spicy marinated beef is stir-fried with loads of garlic and enough cracked black peppercorns to infuse the dish with floral fragrance and to confer a different kind of warming heat than Thai chiles. It’s addictive.
Gang-Keau-Wahn, Thai red curry ($7.50 for chicken at dinner, $6.99 for lunch) was simple and filling, comfort food for a chilly day: A generous ration of thick, tan curry-and-coconut soup carried a distinct piquant edge of chile heat, loaded with tender boneless chicken and (a happy surprise) paper-thin sliced rounds of yellow summer squash. With plenty of aromatic garlic rice to sop it up, it made a memorable lunch.
Ginger chicken with green beans ($8 for dinner, $6.99 for lunch) kept up the pace. As the name implies, it’s a stir-fry mix of spicy marinated chicken strips, wok-seared to a delicious smoky flavor, tossed with fresh ginger julienne and flavorful fresh green beans.
Dessert? Don’t mind if I do! Homemade, creamy and subtle lemongrass ice cream ($4.99) is sauced with sweet-tart pomegranate foam and decorated with lime meringue cookies and a sprig of fresh mint. Molecular gastronomy? At storefront Thai? At TanThai, nothing surprises me. It’s all good.
Lunches, perhaps going a bit overboard with appetizers and desserts, have cost in the $20-$30 range, plus 20 percent-plus tips for courteous and friendly service.
TanThai Cuisine of Thailand
4510 Charlestown Road, Suite 100
New Albany, Ind.
Robin Garr’s rating: 90 points