330 Monroe, Detroit
Entrées $6.50-$7.95 for lunch, $8.95-$12.75 for dinner
Eats: Three stars
Experience: Three stars
For downtown workers saddened by the departure of Sala Thai to its new locale in Eastern Market, there is a new option for satisfying stir-fried cravings: Bahn Thai, open since mid-June and located on Monroe Street.
Though it’s not the lightest version of Thai food around and a number of its dishes need work, you can get a good meal here and the service is friendly and able.
Thai restaurant food as a whole has moved toward the heavier and gloppier since the ethnic fare became a trend, and it seems to get worse every year. At least that’s true in the Detroit area and, I suspect, ruefully, that the preference of American consumers — for food that weighs heavy in the gut — is the cause.
I liked Bahn Thai’s dishes that were meant to be less delicate, but the chef fell down on those that needed a lighter touch.
Chief among these, unfortunately, was the Pad Thai, the touchstone dish for Thai restaurants. Our serving was actually somewhat mushy. My friend ordered the “medium” spice level, which served us well on other dishes, but we found some bites hot and others not at all. “Select spice at own risk,” warns the menu, and “Note: everything comes with no spice unless specify.”
Another benchmark dish, Tom Kha Gai, was delicious. A soup with coconut milk, lime juice and galanga, which imparts fire, Bahn Thai’s version is a gorgeous gold; the tart of the lime plays perfectly with the sweet of the coconut. The chef didn’t add scallions or cilantro, which can make this dish even better and more complex, yet it was still above-average and cost just $2.50.
Why, then, couldn’t the Tom Yum follow suit? This hot-and-sour soup was just sour, and the shrimp tasted old.
Dishes that worked: Pad S’ewe and eggplant with shredded pork. In Pad S’ewe, the stir-fried flat rice noodles are smoky-tasting, which is interesting in itself, but the excellent crisp greens — “Thai broccoli,” otherwise known as Chinese broccoli or broccoli rabe, a leafy green vegetable with little broccoli flowerettes — adds bite and depth. Be sure to specify that you want Thai rather than American broccoli. The ability to keep the greens crisp while combined with moist noodles takes some culinary know-how.
The tender Asian eggplant dish, available only at dinner, is drenched in a rich garlicky brown sauce. Use rice to tone down the too-much-of-a-good-thing factor.
Bahn Thai’s spring rolls and fried rice are reasonably good, though not great. The roll is pretty fresh, crisp but too greasy. The fried rice makes good use of crunchy scallions but needs other vegetables too.
My vegetarian companion ordered Tofu Tod. She loved this dish, but to me the fried chunks were tasteless and slightly greasy. Three sauces were advertised, but we got just one, a bright pink cucumber sauce, sweet not sour.
A dish that showed promise was curry duck, at $12.75 the menu’s most expensive item. As chicken becomes more and more tasteless, duck is increasingly my fowl of choice, and this half-bird was flavor-loaded. The menu said the dish contained pineapple, so, thinking of Chinese “sweet and sour” disasters, I asked for it without. This left green pepper, tomato, red curry and coconut milk, but they weren’t stir-fried with the duck, as advertised. Rather the duck was deep-fried and portions, including two drumsticks, were arranged on top of the veggie mixture.
I’d wanted a more integrated dish and the tomato was a mushy mistake. But when I mixed everything together, including rice, at home the next day and nuked it, it was very fine.
Most Thai cooks use plenty of cilantro, but none of the dishes I tried had any. People love cilantro or hate it, so figure this into your decision to visit Bahn Thai, which means Thai House.
Open Monday-Saturday, lunch and dinner.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.