The news that Thai-Siam had closed after 25 years of dishing up Thai cuisine to Louisville-area diners came with more of a sense of nostalgia than loss, I’d say.
When it opened in 1989, I was beside myself with joy. Having discovered Thai cuisine in California way back in the day, I loved it so hard, and ached for it to make its way east. It was with mixed joy and frustration that I found Siam Thai, Kentucky’s first Thai, which arrived in the mid ‘80s and made it necessary for me to travel frequently to Lexington for a pad thai, satay or panang curry fix.
But Thai-Siam came, and it was good, and before long we had a half-dozen Thai eateries around town — maybe a dozen at one point when the trend peaked a few years back. After the inevitable shakeout, the survivors are just about all worthy, but to be frank, Thai-Siam lost its edge when it went through a change of owners years ago.
In a curious bit of local Thai culinary lore, a number of the current Thai hot spots share family connections: Thai-Siam’s original chef, Chavantee Snow, left there in 1994 to open Thai Cafe (LEO Weekly review, July 17, 2014) with her husband, Billy, and their son, Vichan. They are also kin via “family Thais,” says Vichan Snow, through his aunt, the owner of Simply Thai in St. Matthews, and his cousin, who owns Simply Thai in Middletown.
I expect it’s no coincidence that Thai Cafe and both Simply Thai restaurants rank high among the metro’s Thai eats, in my opinion. Of course, so does Mai’s Thai in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Thai Noodles out Preston Highway.
But wait! There’s more! Today, I offer yet another exceptional platter of pad thai: A recent re-visit to TanThai in New Albany, which impressed me considerably on my first review visit shortly after it opened in 2009, is still going strong, with fare that impresses me as authentic Thai, very well prepared.
This raises the question, of course, of how one who hasn’t yet made it to Thailand can state with certainty that a Thai restaurant in Louisville is fashioning “authentic” Thai fare.
Yeah, that’s fair. I’m most comfortable throwing down the “A-word” when I’m chowing down on the food of a country where I’ve spent time and dined well and made some effort to cook the cuisine at home. But I’ve done enough reading and cooking Thai and eating at highly regarded Thai restaurants around the country over many years that I’m willing to take my lumps on this: TanThai does it right.
I like, too, the modest proposal that they profess on the TanThai website:
“The Idea of real Thai food outside of Thailand is our real purpose of Striving toward Authentic Thai Food, without any alteration that will Compromise the true Thai Taste. That’s what our cooking is all about.”
Works for me! Getting over to Southern Indiana can be an exciting activity in these days of the Great Bridges Boondoggle. I suggest circling around the mess by taking the Sherman Minton Bridge and I-64 up the hill above New Albany, then turning east on the Lee Hamilton Highway, I-265 to Charlestown Road, where you’ll find TanThai in a strip shopping center about a mile to the north.
Step in, and the shopping center feel gives way to something simple yet sophisticated, a cube-shape room broken into intimate sections by sheer curtains suspended from the ceiling to make translucent walls that sway gently.
The menu is studded with hard-to-pronounce Thai names like Gang-Keaw-Wahn and Geow-Narm, but simple English translations, colorful photos and friendly servers with excellent English make it easy to immerse yourself in a Thai experience in Southern Indiana. Only one of the 30 intriguing Thai items, a salmon dish, tops the $10 mark.
Three small, tightly formed spring rolls ($2.99) cut into bite-size halves were crisp and grease-free, crisp and layered like Thai puff pastry. A sweet-hot chile sauce added a pleasant kick.
Geow-Narm ($2.99) completely re-sets your assumptions about wonton soup: These three puffy triangles seemed like little crisp clouds of puff pastry, each stuffed with just a bite of chicken, floating on a remarkable, intense chicken broth hauntingly scented with ginger and lemongrass.
Black Peppercorn Beef ($9) consisted of thin-sliced stir-fried beef strips flavored with garlic and lots of coarsely ground black pepper. Listed as “two-pepper hot,” it seemed more fiery, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Pad-Thai ($9.50 with chicken or veggies, $9 with pork or beef, $10.50 with shrimp) was a good representation of this Thai home-cookery classic. Tender rice noodles (cooked a mite too long, perhaps) contrasted in texture with crisp bean sprouts and in flavor with the usual suspects: scrambled egg, chopped peanuts, scallions and a dash of hot chile oil.
With dark, strong unsweet American style iced tea ($1.65) and floral-scented Thai iced tea laced with sweet condensed milk ($2.50), a luxurious and seemingly authentic Thai lunch for two came to $30.64, plus a $7 tip.
– Robin Garr, louisvillehotbytes.com