Ever since Thai cuisine migrated to North Carolina nearly 50 years ago — the culinary bonus of airmen from North Carolina bases stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam war — the manifestation of Thai dishes throughout the state has been wide-ranging: some good, some bad. Some focus on food while others on glamour. But most offer fair-to middling dishes and cookie-cutter menus.
Now that Thai and Japanese cuisines are center plate nationally, restaurateurs have been quick to learn which dishes of these cuisines might excite or intimidate mainstream customers. This act of precise translation can spell success for an ethnic restaurant.
So if you find yourself on a wintry night pining for the heat of a bold Thai curry, I suggest you find a table at a little, out-of-the-way restaurant called Bahn Thai, which opened last May in Ballantyne.
Bahn (which means house) Thai is a modern room with no patina, faux or otherwise, just bare tables and a prominent sushi bar centered in the back. But the room doesn't feel cold, and the welcome is warm and informal. Sisters Beeh Sirisane and Amp Philavane own the spot. Although they grew up in Charlotte, they were born in Laos, which is adjacent to Thailand. Charlotte has a long history of Laotian entrepreneurs opening restaurants that are not Laotian; some reveal themselves by the culture's traditional staple — the green papaya salad — on the menu.
Bahn Thai's kitchen is manned by two Thai chefs. Sirisane notes the similarities between northern Thai and Laotian cuisines and that serving a combination of sushi and Thai represents the "best" of popular Asian cuisines. Since the sushi roster contains the usual suspects, the Thai side of the menu has more appeal.
Of the Thai dishes, even the simplest sounding items are full of flavor — a fact that might account for Thai food's current popularity. The best of the starters, arguably, are the steamed Thai dumplings, which are meltingly soft packets of ground pork and herbs encased in glistening won ton wrappers. The chicken satay, on the other hand, was chewy.
If you are looking for dishes approaching the real thing, you will need to add the phrase "Thai Style" to your order. In my discussion with my server about the Pad Grapow [Pud Gra Pow on the menu], I learned that the one made here is served without a fried egg. But the kitchen happily added a fried egg to my order. The crispy wok-fried egg melds the dish, since the runny egg yolk tames the chili. Pad Grapow is like the barbecue of Thailand, beloved and with gazillions of variations. Essential is the holy basil, minced meat, chopped bird's eye chili (those tapered, skinny red peppers milder than a habañero), onions and garlic. This kitchen throws in slivers of bell peppers and carrots.
There are equally addicting items also ordered "Thai Style." The aroma of fragrant Thai basil wafting up from a bowl of Gaeng Dang, a red coconut milk curry studded with carrots, scallops and squid, tempts you to close your eyes and imagine warmer weather. Equally striking is the Pad Thai, the dish many assume is the sole contribution of Thai cuisine. If you've grown accustomed to cloyingly sweet, oily or overly sauced Pad Thai, this well-adjusted dish may surprise you by giving equal time to sweet, salty and sour by keeping the lime juice, fish sauce and tamarind balanced.
Singha, a beer brewed in Thailand, is a good bet here. Dishes can be ordered from mild to torrid, and I noticed that dishes ordered Thai style were not afraid of flavor. Because the tables are set close together, I overheard one finicky customer at a neighboring table request a substitution for almost all the ingredients in the dish she had chosen. The kitchen complied. But that got me thinking about the future of ethnic cuisine in Ballantyne, an area with a sketchy history in that genre. Not every dish needs to be suburban. Thai food is vivid when infused with spices, chilies and herbs and a natural remedy to a wintry blast.