The SoDo complex may not have led an architectural revival on South Orange Avenue, but the recent community development (opened in October 2008) has sparked a bit of a culinary renaissance in this once blighted strip of the city. OK, 'renaissanceâ?� may be too strong a term; 'rekindlingâ?� may be more apropos, given most of the restaurants in the area are still of the fast-food variety. After the requisite chains open in rekindled neighborhoods, Asian restaurants are usually the next wave to move in, and here it seems that Thai and pan-Asian varieties are getting the jump on traditional Chinese takeout joints
Case in point: Chai Thai. For what it's worth, Chai Thai is my contender for the best new chain restaurant to open an outlet in the south-of-downtown area, and it is the second of its kind in the city ' the original is still open for business on Curry Ford Road. But it's also a typical Thai restaurant. So, with the exception of a handful of duck dishes, don't expect anything too far out of the ordinary. Chai is designed to serve its area neighbors, and judging from the steady stream of SoDo-mites feasting on well-executed dishes, it appears to be a welcome addition to the 'hood.Â
The space, bathed in yellow, is ornamented with Siamese tchotchkes, fake flowers on tables and photos of fruit-filled boats clogging Bangkok's waterways. The pictures brought to mind a scene in The Man With the Golden Gun in which sheriff J.W. Pepper was sent headfirst into one of those canals after boorishly insulting an Asian elephant. There was no boorish behavior on my part, but I did dive headfirst into a bowl of fiery tom yum gai ($4.99). It's a favorite starter of mine, and this bowl was splendid. My head was soaked with sweat after finishing the peppery chicken soup full of tomatoes, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Angel wings ($7.95) were a fried and stuffed (with clear noodles and vegetables) variation of the finger-food fave, but the app was a safe entryway for those new to the cuisine.
The mains we sampled, roast duck ($18.95) and triple curry ($18.95), were more satisfying for seasoned palates. While sweet concessions were made in the former to accommodate American palates (the sauce was more sugar than spice), the duck itself was a consummate achievement. Crispy, juicy, perfectly greasy ' the savory meat made me forget all about the hefty price tag. The trio of curries makes a great sharing dish: the bowls of massaman, panang and green curry were delightful, and all held up fine the next day (and the day after that). Not sure if the same could be said of all 65 dishes on the menu, but my guess is that Chai Thai will be around long enough for some regulars to make that determination.
On the sweet side, the flan-like Thai custard ($5.99), along with a serving of sweet sticky rice, was just too filling. The 'banana delightâ?� ($4), samosa-style pastries filled with the fruit, flecked with sesame seeds and drizzled with honey, were a better ending.
Expect proper pacing and lickety-split service, as the waitstaff were quick and pleasantly efficient on my visit. In case you're wondering, the Chai Thai is named after the owner, not the beverage, but either way you cut it, it is just my cup of tea.