Bruce Bauer from WineGuyWorld.com has a look at a Thai restaurant I hadn’t heard of before.
I have seen the future of Thai food happiness in Portland, and by lucky coincidence, it is about a five-minute drive from our house! A newish place called Mai Thai (a shocking play on words, I know!) opened a couple of months ago down on 31st and SE Belmont. Both w and I are huge Thai food aficionados, but here, like everywhere in America, you have to wade through rivers of mediocrity to find anything of quality. I had gotten a couple of to-go orders in the last three weeks from Mai Thai and was very impressed. Taking into account that no restaurant food eaten at home is as good as having it at the source, this was still really flavorful, interesting, and just plain good. I found one dish last week called Pad Prik King (c3 on their menu) which was a large serving of just-right green beans in a house-made chili sauce with prawns. Two bites in I was already wondering when I could have it again. Instant food addiction!
So last night w and I decided to have the dine-in experience and made the mercifully short drive. Their dining room is very nicely done, with nice touches like silk tablecloths and throws over the chairs, but not too over-the-top like some places. Just comfortable. We started in with an appetizer of Toa Hoo Tod (menu item #3), which was light, pillowy golden brown fried tofu with a perfectly balanced Thai sweet-sour sauce. The perfect start because it was flavorful but not filling, which as I understand it is the whole point of appetizers, right? We followed that with their squid salad…cooked squid with onion, mint leaves, lemongrass, tomatoes, chili paste, and lime. An explosion of flavors, and even at “medium heat” not too hot, but with enough kick to have us sniffling ever so slightly. The squid was very fresh tasting with a perfect chew. Like everything we had this was a beautifully presented dish, thoughtfully plated for real visual appeal. The whole “eating with your eyes first” is clearly understood here.
Between courses, we were talking with our server who also owns the place with her family. They came up from Los Angeles recently, looking to do their own style of Thai cooking without getting lost in the maze that is Asian dining in L.A. The space on Belmont was an underperforming Chinese joint for years, and they did a great job of renovating. Plus what really sells me on a place like this was her insistence that they “do food we like to eat, not what people expect”. I love that attitude, especially when it’s executed as well as they do at Mai Thai.
So we were ready for more at this point. I of course had to satisfy my Pad Prik King jones and it was as good as the first time. Their chili paste sauce is so good, complex, incredibly flavorful but not overpowering, and the beans have a nice bite without that annoying “squeak” you get when you bite into improperly cooked beans. We had it with prawns which I have to think is the way to go, but they also offer it with chicken or tofu. One of w’s (and probably everyone’s) benchmarks are Pad Thai, the ubiquitous but rarely well-done item at every Thai restaurant. We ordered a plate (#39) and both were giving each other looks like “wow, someone has finally got it right!” The noodles were slightly chewy in a good way, the sauce piquant but not biting (maybe there was a tad too much sauce, but not enough to really detract). The serving was very generous as well, something that can be said for everything we had. The entrées in general run in the extremely reasonable price range, and considering how good everything has been, this has to be considered one of Portland’s food bargains. I’ve also tried the Fantastic Tofu (C1) which was just that, and a Mussamun Curry (35) which was the only average dish I’ve had off the menu. There are also desserts to be explored, but this night the stomach real estate was not to found. But you know I’ll be back for it!
Mai Thai is one of those places you hope sticks around so you can see what develops. The staff is very friendly and ready with solid advice, like her suggestion that we try their whole sea bass, which we didn’t but will next time because it’s hard to find whole fried fish dome well, and I’m betting Mai Thai nails it!
[Bruce Bauer is a regular contributor to the site]
- Phone: (503) 232-9844
- Address: 3104 SE Belmont Street, Portland OR. 97214
- Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11-3, Dinner Mon-Thur 3pm-9:30pm, Fri 3pm-10pm, Sat-Sun 12pm-10pm
- Website: MaiThaiPortland.com
Bruce, I am so happy to see your review. I am in love with Mai Thai and have been soliciting local reviews. My husband and I have eaten at Mai Thai literally a dozen times in 2-3 months. We have eaten so many different dishes, and each time are blown away. Whole bass, moo ping (sweet, spicy pork on a stick), mango posse (stir-fry of mangoes, prawns, scallops, squid, fish, veggies, cashews, and deliciousness), a sublimely simple panang curry, etc. We’ve also had 4 of the salads, all incredible (and very spicy, which we love). We often have long conversations with the owners about the ingredients, where they come from, how they’re used, etc., and they are generous with this information and enthusiastic. They love what they do, care deeply about the finished product, and I can’t say enough about how wonderful this place is. Thanks for your descriptive review, it was a pleasure to read.
And I’m glad you’ve had so many good experiences there. They really seem to be taking Thai food in a different direction…visually and qualitatively…than we’ve seen before here in Portland. Just reading your comment gets me salivating…and it’s only 9am!
Another great thing is that they deliver within 3 miles. Very helpful when you have your hands full at home (like a particularly competitive game of scrabble).
Nothing like a delicious plate of pad prik king to get your synapses firing!
I had the best Panang curry outside of Thailand (so far) at Mai Thai about a week ago. I too can attest to the staff being knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their food and the final product. I almost felt compelled to call them from home and tell then just how good the curry was.
i also have really enjoyed mai thai. so far everything that i’ve tried has been wonderful, and the owners and employees are really nice. they give you a little something free with each delivery order (egg rolls or salad rolls or something). i hope this place does really well! incidentally, i noticed that on portlandfood.org extramsg was not impressed with it. i really liked it, though, and am happy to see a good review of it here.
three blocks away says
Hurry up and try this place before it gets discovered and the line is out the door. I am lucky to live only three blocks away, but would gladly drive across town for this food. The whole menu is superb, and the specials are incredible. No vegetable gets overcooked and the presentation is head and shoulders above any other Thai in town.
The mango posse, with big chunks of ripe mango, fat scallops and prawns is a marriage of hot and sweet not to be missed. When they have them, the sweet and garlicy chili clams are worth a trip by themselves.
A whole fish poached in ginger and onion broth has got to be one of the best low-fat, low-carb dishes offered anywhere in Portland. That and a grilled beef salad would make a four star meal for any low-carb eater.
In the appetizers, the chicken satay is more distinctively seasoned than most as well as a more generous serving. I shared an all-salads meal with friends the other night, and every one was delicious and distinctive.
Living so close I probably should try to keep this place to myself, as the place is not huge. But, I want them to be there for a long time and get the audience they deserve. Note they also offer carry out and delivery, and prix fixe weekday lunches.
Mostly Running. says
I’m three blocks away as well, but I wouldn’t say this place is a home run yet. I had the “mango posse” as well, and the fruit was ripe enough but tasted like it had been shipped in tainted cardboard. It tasted like corked wine and permeated the dish. The texture of the scallops was a little mealy, but everything in that dish was cooked well if not fresh.
I’ve enjoyed the chicken satay and agree with your description of the seasoning. The pad thai is really well balanced towards the acidic side of savory and, despite my reservations about ordering it, the orange chicken was really tasty. Nice crisp nibbles of chicken with a fair amount of orange zest and not an overly sweet flavor. I’ve had maybe 8 other dishes that were either not memorable or simply lacking. Execution has always been good but balancing the prices against the quality of the food I would say give it more time before suggesting they deserve an audience.
The place is definitely an improvement over the previous incarnation but it’s not a must hit joint yet.
three blocks update says
Friend with relative who requires a chili-free diet reported that they very kindly did a whole special meal for the guy, which was reportedly excellent.
Kathryn B says
The Portland Mercury reviewer made this mistake too–Mai Thai is not a pun. In Thai “mai” has several meanings, depending on the tones. In this case, it means “silk”. Like all the beautiful Thai silk they’ve used in the decor.
My family and I are all fans, and I’m doing my best to spread the word–because I want them there forever too. It’s so much cheaper than flying to Chiang Mai for dinner.