by Elissa Karg
Even the mild spice level at Sy Thai will prickle your taste buds; advance to medium and your tongue is seared and your sinuses drain freely. Who knows what might happen if you order “top of the line”? (No spice is an option.)
In downtown Birmingham for more than eight years, Sy Thai is named after chef/ owner Sy Vang. The little storefront eatery was packed on a recent Saturday night, and we waited for a table with a hip crowd. It was a noisy, friendly place, also doing a brisk take-out business.
The co-diner commented that babies are a fashionable accessory in Birmingham, and wondered if there might be a baby-rental place nearby.
Each entrée is offered with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu, vegetables, shrimp, squid or imitation crab. This eliminates the problem of hundreds of entrées that bogs down so many Oriental menus. There are 14 choices under “traditional entrées” which can be served with any of the above nine mainstays. Listed separately, that would be 126 dishes. Multiply again for eight noodle entrées, nine curry entrées, and five variations of fried rice. Add in another four duck selections and 10 seafood specials. See what I mean?
All meat, poultry and vegetarian entrées are $7.95; seafood entrées are $8.95. The four duck entrées are $11.50 each, as are the seafood specials.
One of the first things we ate was also one of the best: an appetizer of fresh steamed mussels ($5.95) in coconut milk with fresh basil and spiked with plenty of lime juice. The mussels are served on the half shell, and you have to poke through the opaque broth to find them. Bits of carrot, celery and scallion lurk beneath the surface as well. It is just the thing on a winter night.
Vietnamese rolls, made with fresh rice paper ($3.95), are packed with shredded raw vegetables, cilantro, lettuce and rice noodles. But stay away from the tofu tod ($3.95). Five squares of deep-fried bean curd tasted like cardboard. A sweet dipping sauce made them taste like cardboard with marmalade.
There are two traditional Thai soups on the menu: tom yum and tom kha, which can be ordered with chicken or shrimp. Tom kha, made with coconut milk, would bring me back to this little eatery time and again. The coconut broth is laced with lime juice — a sublime combination — and I liked the little straw mushrooms, scallions and fresh basil floating within. A garnish of sliced tomato was just barely cooked by the time I got to it, a delicious surprise.
Curry noodles with squid was blanketed in a peanut sauce, but the contrast of the chewy squid with the noodles was interesting. Bits of scrambled egg, chopped peanuts and bean sprouts completed the monochromatic color scheme.
Drunken noodles is made with a wide rice noodle, bean sprouts, bell peppers, scallions and egg, all laced with Thai brandy.
Less satisfactory was ka tiem, a stir fry with garlic, scallions and black pepper over a bed of lettuce; the thin strips of pork were dry and tough.
The grilled chicken salad comes with a “cucumber sauce” that had nothing to do with cucumbers; it was red and sweet like what you might cook up for your hummingbird feeder.
Coconut ice cream, a Thai classic, is available for dessert, but the version here is not very tasty. More interesting was the banana cake, which is a steamed banana-and-red bean concoction, wrapped in a banana leaf.
You may long for a cold beer to dissolve the hot oils from your tongue, but, alas, Sy Thai has no liquor license. There are some tropical fruit drinks, including guava, coconut and mango, though they will do nothing to quench the fire of the chili peppers.
Use the parking structure; it is only steps away and your first two hours are free.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.