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 V.18 No.23 | June 4 - 10, 2009 

Restaurant Review

Mai Thai

Just right

Rice paper-wrapped spring rolls are stuffed with shrimp and crisp, julienned vegetables. Sesame dipping sauce appears on the side.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Rice paper-wrapped spring rolls are stuffed with shrimp and crisp, julienned vegetables. Sesame dipping sauce appears on the side.

The green papaya salad called som tam is my preferred litmus test for judging Thai restaurants. When done right, the shredded papaya is crisp and the sauce is tangy and light, and not overpowering in terms of heat or fish sauce. When I ordered som tam the other night at May Thai the waitress asked “How hot?”

“Hot,” I said.

“Thai hot?” she double-checked. I consented, only because I knew she didn’t mean it.

In Thailand they ask you how much fish sauce you want, at which point I recommend making the universal hand signal for small. When I was in Thailand a few years ago, I noticed that putrid levels of fishiness are very much the norm. They also ask if you want blue crabs, shell and all, crushed into the som tam. And if you don’t ask for a reduction in chile, you’ll ingest enough heat to melt you a new asshole after vaporizing your guts.

It begs the question of how authentic we truly want our ethnic food. I rarely appreciate watered-down versions of the real deal, but sometimes it’s worth acknowledging you’re a gringo.

Green curry with chicken, eggplant and fresh basil is just right over rice.
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Green curry with chicken, eggplant and fresh basil is just right over rice.

Mai Thai’s papaya salad was awesome. The flavor, mercifully easy on the fish sauce, lured me into its fiery clutches before smacking me back with its creeping heat, playing a perfect hand of good cop/bad cop on me. (“Don’t! Stop!”)

Not Thai hot, just right: Hot enough to challenge me without killing me.

The waitress, sympathetic to my plight, returned often to keep my glass filled with cold water, which only dulled the senses superficially but helped keep me in the game.

Also helpful was an appetizer of rice paper-wrapped spring rolls stuffed with lettuce, carrot, cucumber—all of it crisp—and shrimp that tasted clean and fresh, with a sesame dipping sauce.

It begs the question of how authentic we truly want our ethnic food. I rarely appreciate watered-down versions of the real deal, but sometimes it’s worth acknowledging you’re a gringo.

Curry is another litmus test of Thai restaurant prowess, and I was in the mood for fish. I let the waitress advise me on the best combination, and she suggested a spectacular tilapia with red curry. It was basic, bomber Thai curry, plus bamboo shoots and fish in the distinctly Thai balance of coconut, lemongrass, galangal and lime leaf. Exactly what I wanted. Another favorite of mine, tom yum soup, was a solid but pedestrian version of that excellent hot and sour soup. It didn’t surpass the competition like some of Mai Thai’s offerings.

Mai Thai’s decor is minimal, functional and food-focused. There’s a built-in buffet for lunch ($7.25 all-you-can-eat), and the waitress was happy to share her encyclopedic knowledge of the different offerings on each of the week’s five days. But the next time I made it to Mai Thai, it was almost 2 p.m. and the buffet looked a little tired—to be expected on a busy day. I ordered off the menu: veggie guay tiew—the Thai version of Vietnamese pho—and a green curry with catfish.

Catfish was a silly choice. I don’t usually like it, as it often tastes muddy to me, and this catfish was no exception. But the green curry was terrific, loaded with eggplant and basil. The guay tiew rocked with a rich flavor of roasted garlic and heaps of carrots, zucchini, mushrooms and cabbage. In fact, there were more veggies than rice noodles, which was a good thing—too many noodles can suck up all the broth. The clear soup came with a generous aromatic side salad of fresh basil, mung sprouts, mint leaves, sliced jalapeño and lime wedges. Sound pho-miliar? This Thai version of Vietnam’s ubiquitous bowl of comfort food more than held its own in a town not short on pho. I started sweating after the first bite. It wasn't Thai hot—luckily. It was just right. And just the thing to cool you down on a Thai-hot day in Albuquerque.

The Alibi recommends:

• Som tam green papaya salad

• Guay tiew, the pho soup of Thai cuisine

• Any curry on the menu

Mai Thai, 1225 Eubank NE, 299-6301, maithaialb.com. Hours: Mon-Fri 11 am-8:30 pm (buffet available 11 am-2:30 pm); Sat noon-8:30 pm; Sun 5-8:30 pm. Price range: $7.25 (lunch buffet) to $11 ( pla lad prik ). Ambience: no-nonsense strip mall. No booze, credit cards accepted.

 

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