Thai cuisine is well-worn territory for local food lovers. Even babes in arms have twirled a noodle or two, and who hasn't had Pad Thai, the quintessential Thai dish? These foods were brought here decades ago as Thai cuisine made its journey across the state from such unlikely places as Goldsboro and Fayetteville.
What these eastern cities have in common are the airborne forces from Fort Bragg, Pope Air Force Base, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. During the Vietnam war, many airmen were stationed at Thai airfields. Some of these married Thai women and came to eastern Carolina and opened restaurants.
What Charlotte has lacked, though, is adequate variation in Thai regional cuisines. This is not to say that local Thai restaurants do not offer different tastes from around this southeastern Asian country. Some do, but not enough for local food lovers to be discerning of the difference.
Take the ubiquitous mee krob, for example. For decades, the better Thai restaurants have offered Charlotteans a spicier than sweet rendition of this well-known Thai dish more akin to a Chinese lettuce wrap than a street-sweet Indian chaat. Some restaurants even offered two styles of mee krob, the latter being the more common saccharine dish. The mee krob at the 60-seat Deejai Thai Restaurant is sweet, very sweet.
Owners Jai Budsri and her husband Shane Nofziger opened Deejai in Myers Park after selling a restaurant in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. Budsri's family is from northeastern Thailand, known as Isan (pronounced E-San), and they first opened a restaurant in the suburbs of Chicago. Later, they relocated to a warmer Atlanta. Budsri's brother still operates their store in Decatur. Nofziger says they moved to Charlotte because there is not as much competition here. He says, "In Buckhead, we had four or five other Thai restaurants on the same street. Charlotte offers more opportunity."
Budsri said the dishes in northeastern Thailand are sweeter than the dishes from southern Thailand, which are spicy and saltier. One of the most popular dishes from Isan is Dancing Shrimp, a live -- that's right, live -- shrimp mixed with lime juice, cilantro and basil with fresh Thai hot chili peppers. "The shrimp are still jumping around," Budsri says. Her family changed this dish to steamed jumbo shrimp in their Decatur store and is considering adding this dish to the Deejai menu.
Deejai's head chef is Budsri's mother Maneejun "Beck" Sihavong, who has a degree in nutrition from Thailand.
Not much has changed in the dining room since the space was Salute Wine & Provisions. The interior is muted and dark. The bar area is close to the entrance, but the place doesn't sell alcohol. The side porch offers a breezy spot to enjoy an evening in Myers Park, even if you look up to see a dangling light bulb. ("Going to be a ceiling fan," says our server.) The planters lining the porch fence are currently devoid of plants.
What people want from Thai cuisine is that extraordinary exploration of flavor balances and complex layering. Unfortunately, as some Thai kitchens strive to meet the tastes of the stereotypical Western palate, these layers are lost and can give way to one taste: sweet.
While the mee krob here was overtly syrupy, the pork pot stickers app offers a welcome sucker punch of delicately flavored curry. Another starter, the substantial basil rolls, is enlivened with the plum dipping sauce.
The kitchen's attention to detail is straightaway evident in nuer poo kao, a dish from Isan that features marinated stir-fried beef with broccoli, carrots and baby corn. We were less enthusiastic about the blatantly sweet Pad Thai. Better were the appropriately charred lamb chops with their bite-you-back chili sauce and stir-fried asparagus. There's a decent selection of salads and curries, and entrees from the grill and wok.
Deejai is not inexpensive: Many of the entrees are in the high teens or low twenties, which is surprising for the amount of meat in many of the dishes. And with entrees at these prices, service needs to be improved. While I poured my own wine, I heard customers at neighboring tables asking about specific dishes, yet servers seemed unaware of what the kitchen could produce. With this menu offering items which may be unfamiliar to the patrons, education is essential.
On a more positive note, savoring Thai curry on a patio in Myers Park isn't too shabby. Perhaps as the owners get used to the rhythm of this city, things will improve. Budsri admits they are still working out the kinks. I hope they do.