It’s no accident that the newly opened Salathai already has the feeling of a well-worn sarong. It’s a reincarnation of Thai Ginger—on south San Mateo and now called Thai House—which Pitak Titakkan and his brother sold in 2007. Titakkan is back in the saddle with Salathai, on Copper and Carlisle, and he's picking up where he left off.
You pass through a fragrant cloud of steam by the open kitchen door en route from the parking lot to the entrance, and if you peek inside you might get waved at. The labyrinthine dining area starts small, but opens up as you round a corner. It ends at a private room in the back that boasts a full-wall mural of a boat plying the Chao Phraya River in front of Bangkok's Wat Arun temple. Asian pop music helps buffer the space between closely packed tables.
A sign outside advertises vegetarian specialties, and perhaps the most special of them all is the eggplant delight. It’s like a Thai version of ratatouille, with purple eggplant, onions, garlic, basil, and red and green pepper. It has a fullness that the most hardened carnivores would find a soft spot for, and even the red gravy that remains after the veggies are gone would make a good meal if poured over a bowl of rice—Grade A jasmine rice, as the menu points out.
The menu is strong from end to end, but the seafood dishes are the strongest, especially the fish dishes, in which every detail seems like a calculated response to the qualities of each fish. A sweet piece of tilapia is batter-fried to a light-brown crisp and smothered in a floral green curry, while the salmon filet is blackened, its charred flavor balancing a relatively pungent and spicy panang curry.
The mussels and herbs, a simple bowl of comfort, delivers the distilled essence of mussels and the ocean. Supported by a light touch of lemongrass and a hint of tomato, the mussels are meaty and clean tasting. They float in a soothing broth that has an aroma somewhere between artichoke and chamomile.
I’m always a little scared of catfish. Though it can be delicious, at other times it bears the muddy flavor of freshwater pond scum. In this case, the deep-fried filet has no hint of muck. Decadently greasy, it gracefully absorbs the piled-on salad of mango, cabbage, carrot and ginger in a sweet, tangy sauce.
Supported by a light touch of lemongrass and a hint of tomato, the mussels are meaty and clean tasting. They float in a soothing broth that has an aroma somewhere between artichoke and chamomile.
Three ingredients in the thom kha talay, a coconut seafood soup, remain after the bowl is drained. Woody and ginger-flavored galanga, stiff and aromatic Kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass cut into twirled ribbons team up to create a fragrant context for mussels, juicy scallops and spongy pieces of textured squid carved into helices. The airtight fresh rolls contain a busy rendezvous of rice noodles, crisp and crinkly lettuce, shrimp, tofu, cucumber, sprouts, and basil, with an equally complex nutty and garlicky dipping sauce.
Pork slices floating in the jungle curry are tender as clouds, and they float among peanuts, carrots and potatoes in a light red sauce. Like all of the Salathai curries I tried, this one benefits from the quality of the jasmine rice it’s paired with.
The thom yum, or hot and sour soup, is usually my barometer of Thai restaurant quality, but at Salathai it falls short—the shrimp have little company in the salty broth. The beef with broccoli and oyster sauce is similarly unspectacular relative to the joys elsewhere on the menu.
A note on the menu warns that everything is cooked to order and might take a little while. This is not a ploy to get you to drink more Thai iced tea, which disappears faster than an August puddle—it's just the truth. The food can take about a half-hour on a busy night, but it's worth the wait. Not many Thai restaurants in this town could thrive if transplanted to the streets of Bangkok, but I think this one could.