Pan-fried dumplings are usually such a bore. Years of gnashing through them—often doughy little triangles, frequently from a box in the freezer, stuffed with a mash of unidentifiable vegetables with about as much verve as Mitch McConnell after a shot of Benadryl—has led to my current Pavlovian response, which is to order them as a control group of sorts, just to see if the meal that’s about to begin has a chance of being remotely interesting.
So to say that Baan Thai’s were an auspicious beginning would be an understatement. The generous green dumplings arrived still sizzling from their stint in the oil, a lacy, intricate carapace of wafer-thin happiness clinging to their sides. The usual veg-mush was replaced by a joyous gathering of water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, leeks and shiitakes, all of it homemade, all of it infinitely better than the majority of what you’ll taste elsewhere. They didn’t even need the soy sauce. When’s the last time that happened?
Attention to the minute differences in flavor and texture are what lift many of the dishes here above the fray. Samantha Marsh, who owned two Thai restaurants before Baan Thai (one in Bangkok and another in California), takes the food she serves personally; even the Thai lemon leaves, galangal, lemongrass and other herbs are grown by her and her sister in, of all places, Levittown. Personal touches like that lead to a real sense of intimacy with this food.
Ped yang was anchored by sliced barbecued duck with skin so crispy it reminded me of some kind of perfect hybrid between Peking duck and fried chicken. The meat itself played well off its ginger sauce, and the portion size was more than generous. Kang-dang red curry found the happy intersection of creaminess from coconut milk and perfectly dialed-in spice from the curry paste. The result was a dish that kept evolving throughout each individual bite, the first impression lush and almost fruity, then building to a pleasant sizzle that never overwhelmed. The pork swimming in this gorgeous liquid could have been cooked a minute less, but the curry itself was distractingly good enough to atone for that.
Rad-nar—tender, slippery flat rice noodles—are listed as being topped with a homemade “gravy,” a word that I’ve rarely experienced having been used so accurately as it is here. This was a gravy in the old-school sense, meaty, glistening and built from a stock that’s boiled down each morning. A nuanced, clear-flavored tom yum, rooted in a homemade chicken stock, also benefitted from the kitchen’s DIY insistence.
There were also a number of standouts that are usually toss-aways at too many other restaurants. The peanut dressing for another salad, for instance, was stunning—a simple blend of peanut sauce, ground peanut, coconut milk and spices whose identities I was told are secret. A dessert of warm, sweet sticky rice, each grain translucent and toothsome, was joined, as it so often is, by slices of fresh mango, its own coolness contributing to a vibrating sense of tension with each bite. Coconut pudding was a bi-layered gem, four little cups filled with a bottom of jiggly, almost gelatinous pudding and a sweeter coconut crown. Even the Thai iced tea, with its condensed milk floating on top like some kind of nonalcoholic Irish coffee, was anchored by deeply steeped tea whose tannic bitterness was a genius foil for the sweet lactic cap.
Occasionally, however, those successes were undercut by what seems to be the most common sin among Thai restaurants in this country: Leaning too heavily on sweetness as a defining flavor characteristic. This happened with the cucumber salad, whose overt sugariness made more than a few bites difficult. More vinegar was needed, a bit of heat—anything, really, to cut the cloying sweetness of the syrup the cucumbers were served in. But if that one Achilles’ heel can be bandaged and healed, Baan Thai shows real promise.
As does the space: It’s an attractive, calming room with a lovely flower motif throughout. Rich wood-toned floors, tables covered by stippled synthetic cloths like Chilewich curtains, the linearity of it all lent life by pretty white vases with flowers sprouting from their tops. It’s a clean-lined, appealing setting for a restaurant with soul to spare.
1030 N. American St. 215.238.1219. baanthaiphiladelphia.com
Cuisine type: Thai.
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri.,11:30am-3pm. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 4:30-10pm; Fri., 4:30-11pm; Sat., noon-11pm; Sun., 3-10pm.
Price range: $1.50-$22.
Atmosphere: Clean-lined, calming and pleasant.
Food: Personal touches and a DIY ethos bode well.
Service: Friendly and understated; it’s a family affair.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014