Thai Saweiy inhabits the space where Thai Crystal used to be, on the first block of Gold Street, Downtown. The switch came when Thai Crystal’s new owner Kathy Punya decided a full makeover was necessary and recruited the manager from one of her other restaurants, the Westside Sushi King, to run the place. Jai Chanthavong was born in Laos and learned his brand of Texas-style Thai food at his parents’ restaurant in Amarillo.
“They’re used to our food over there,” he says, of the cuisine that arose out of attempts to feed Thai food to Texans and Mexicans. The jalapeño fried rice ($9.95), which comes with sliced avocados warming on top, epitomizes Texas Thai. According to Chanthavong, “It’s got jalapeños, and if it’s got jalapeños, it’s Mexican, so it goes with avocado.”
Avocado on fried rice is a rare combination, and I needed a moment to adjust. Just a moment, and then I was convinced of its brilliance. I had ordered the rice with vegetables as my protein. Tofu is another option, along with the usual animal parts. The veggie jalapeño fried rice delivered veggies great and small. It was light in body, but was as satisfying as if it had been doused in bacon grease. And that warm avocado contrast was captivating.
I love it when a chef appreciates vegetables. The broccoli at Thai Saweiy was never overcooked, always arriving bright green with just a hint of crunch. The vegetable green curry ($9.95), earthy and complex, was loaded with colorful, almost crunchy veggies. Cabbage wedges accompanied several of the dishes, including the papaya salad ($8.95) and laab gai ($9.95)— ground chicken with mint, lime, dried chile, toasted rice powder, herbal spicy pizzazz and comes with sticky rice. “We eat it a lot at home,” Chanthavong said of the laab gai.
If you eat it with sticky rice, that means you eat it with your hands, and the cabbage wedges help. An upcoming special Chanthavong has planned is papaya salad, chicken wings and sticky rice, to be eaten by hand, presumably with cabbage wedges, which unpack into multiple spoons.
The jalapeño fried rice ($9.95), which comes with sliced avocados warming on top, epitomizes Texas Thai. According to Chanthavong, “It’s got jalapeños, and if it’s got jalapeños, it’s Mexican, so it goes with avocado.”
The menu at Thai Saweiy is a mix of standard Thai dishes that are more or less what you’d expect, like the papaya salad, pad thai or the tom yum, along with the occasional Tex-Thai, home-style dish or pragmatic incorporation of other popular Asian dishes.
“P.F. Chang’s has lettuce wraps, I want lettuce wraps,” he told me. Crab rangoon is on the menu “because people love them.” But always, in his pan-Asian appropriations, he says there is a “Thai twist, Thai herbs.” He also says he uses more roots, like galanga, ginger and lemongrass, than most Thai cooks.
The roots were on full display atop a fried piece of snapper ($13.95), the crispy, flaky flesh mounded with shredded ginger and carrots, while soaking in deep juice.
The presence of herbs and roots are strong in the curries as well. I ordered a panang curry—one of four red curry options on the menu—with tofu. The tofu is thin-sliced with a light, crisp and barely cooked interior, and those plain slabs floating in the thick red curry created a visual simplicity that juxtaposed with its rich complexity.
Chanthavong purports to take sauce-making seriously, which I wasn’t surprised to hear. Some dishes on the menu are simply named sauce, like the garlic sauce ($9.95) I ordered with beef. It combines garlic, mushrooms and enough black pepper to be spicy. Much of the world’s black pepper is grown in Southeast Asia, and it’s nice when you see it featured in a dish from the region. The full, deep sauce brought those strong flavors together beautifully and was fantastic on jasmine rice.
The seafood dishes are a strong suit at Thai Saweiy, as are the noodles—especially if you’re a fan of wide flat rice noodles, which five menu dishes contained. At the intersection of seafood, noodles and sauce, the laad nha ($13.95) is a bowl of flat rice noodles in a rich seafood gravy and is laden (laad nha means “on top”) with a generous quantity of seafood, including several juicy scallops, textured squid ribbons, mussels on the half shell and shrimp, as well as green broccoli florets. As the noodles slowly absorb the rich, oceanic nectar, they set into a cake-like state, something like a savory, brown, umami-rich seafood noodle pudding. I ate it with the house prepared green Thai chiles in fish sauce from the condiment caddy, and it was like getting kissed and slapped by a mermaid at the same time.
The sticky rice and mango, that most dependable of ways to end a good Thai meal in America, offered a final, creative twist: toasted coconut on top. Perhaps this is a Texas twist, or just something Chanthavong thought of out of thin air.
But he is working on another dish that he hopes to run as an appetizer special: chicken puffs, made with seasoned chicken and potatoes wrapped in wonton skins. It will be good, he promised, and old-school Texas Thai to the core.
“It would be better if we could use MSG,” he lamented, only half-jokingly.