Salty, spicy, sweet, sour, hot. These five elements, used in (almost) equal degrees, characterize Thai food. Sometimes the powerful flavors can overwhelm the Western palate; at other times, they are sublime. The iced tea was so sweet that I could not drink it. But in other dishes, the flavors were playful, bouncing off each other, sometimes blending.
Thai soup is always a pleasure, and Tom Kha combines at least four of the five elements with harmony. The coconut milk is sweet (1); it is balanced with lime juice (sour, 2). The broth is spiced (3) with galangal (similar to ginger), tamarind and cilantro and then heated up with chili peppers (4). Delicate straw mushrooms and squares of tofu float beneath the surface.
I loved the apple salad (apples are grown in the north of Thailand, our friendly server explained). Julienned strips of Granny Smith apples, tossed with toasted coconut, diced red onions, and bits of chicken are assembled on the plate like a mountain with cashews strewn about. With each bite, the flavors seemed more intriguing: bright, harmonious, yet distinct.
Tawat Sittipong, owner of Sukhothai (named for the ancient capital of Thailand, which translates as dawn of happiness) revealed the secret: made fresh to order, seasoned with nothing but salt and sugar.
The co-diner pronounced Pla Jien the best catfish he had ever eaten. The catfish fillet was fried in a batter, and served under a blanket of stir-fried mushrooms, scallions, shredded pork and shrimp, all in a “brown” sauce (which gets its color and flavor from mushrooms, soy sauce and hoisin sauce). The fish was full of flavor, free of bones, and remarkably crunchy, even though it was completely smothered.
Pad Thai Woonsen differs from the noodle favorite in using transparent rice noodles. We ordered it with squid, which had been lightly stir-fried and was very tender. The usual Pad Thai suspects were all there: bean sprouts, egg, green onions and crushed peanuts. Very good.
Also recommended: Koong Houm Pa, an appetizer in which a spring roll wrapper is folded into a triangle around ground pork and a jumbo shrimp, with the shrimp tail forming a handle (think of a flat ice cream cone), then deep fried. It is served with a sweet plum dipping sauce. The crispy spring rolls were also delicious.
The only dish we didn’t like was Ma Kher, sautéed eggplant in a garlic sauce with basil leaves and pork. The pork was dry and way too salty, and the eggplant had cooked so long it was disintegrating, more like an overcooked stew.
Curry is another staple of Thai cuisine, and we liked Gang Dang, a red curry made with coconut milk, bamboo shoots and green and red peppers. I appreciated that the peppers were still crisp. I ordered it with tofu, and the neutral flavors worked well with the spicy curry.
We wanted to try the mung bean custard for dessert, but we were out of luck. Tawat Sittipong, who got his first restaurant experience helping a friend start a Thai restaurant in Vietnam, explained that the palm sugar used to sweeten the custard comes from coconut palms that are too young to bear fruit. Their flowers are cut open and tapped for the nectar in a process that sounded similar to gathering maple syrup.
Like all the best ethnic restaurants, you’ll find Sukhothai in a seedy strip mall. Inside, you’ll hear the Thai version of R&B and sit at tables covered with brocade woven with silvery elephants. On two weekends we shared the restaurant with only a few others, and we were treated like favorite cousins. Tawat left Thailand three and a half years ago. He found New York too similar to the busy city of Bangkok where he was raised. “Very crowded, very fast-paced” is how he describes both cities. “Detroit,” he says, is “much calmer.”
As we left one evening, the co-diner said, “These people may be too nice to make it in the restaurant business.” Let’s hope not.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.