Thai Sushi 101 looks, on first inspection, like many of the take-over out-parcels located in Charlotte-area neighborhoods. Beginning life as a Friendly's, the real estate morphed into a now-defunct Japanese restaurant then to the modestly transformed Asian-styled eatery it is now.
The menu is a cannily calibrated hybrid of two successful Charlotte enterprises: Sushi 101 that opened in Myers Park in 2002, and Thai 1st in Blakeney that opened in 2010. Both are concepts of entrepreneur Rick Taing and partners.
Taing, a Cambodian expat who grew up in the refugee camps in Thailand, and his wife, Ana, who has a similar back story, focus on the original premise of Sushi 101: Having fun and making people feel at home.
Taing has been successful in situating his restaurants in neighborhoods. He opened Thai Sushi 101 last January.
Center stage here is the food. An Itamae, working the Sushi 101 element, crafts traditional and non-traditional rolls behind the sushi bar while Ana Taing is responsible for the Thai treats delivered from the kitchen.
If you go the Thai route, a veritable caravan of flavors will arrive at the table. Dishes are clean, satisfying and consciously less fussy.
The first dish my tasters and I sampled was the classic Tom Kha Gai (chicken and coconut soup) delicately laced with galangal, lemongrass, basil and ginger brought tableside in an aluminum serving bowl with flames shooting from the center chimney. Hmm. Both fun and good. The heat keeps the soup at just the right temperature, that is, if you or your tablemates don't gulp it all down after first slurp.
The starter list offers spring rolls, skewers, and the lettuce wrap — one of those cuisine defining dishes — with sliced, not minced, chicken, whole cashews and carrots.
There is also the ground pork, Nam Sod, lettuce wrap. Flights of flavored sakes are offered, as are signature cocktails.
The wine list is limited. Many of the menu items are clearly designed to be enjoyed with copious amounts of sake or beer, hence the long bar.
Other dishes demand tables. Main dishes are uniformly generous, to say the least, and sharable.
The ubiquitous Pad Thai, often a straightforward dish, pairs pan-fried noodles happily with thin slices of chicken and shrimp.
And then there's the curry. Go red here and tell your server you can take the heat. You won't regret it. Curries are meant to be consumed in a spicy lather, cooled by vegetables and a sidecar of rice.
If you go, order the Tom Kha Gai soup, harboring in its lush depths the buried treasures of mushrooms and tender morsels of chicken; and Thai SuShi 101 is something like that: a happy surprise, humbly presented.