Hits and Misses

Two meals at Jai Thai, two very different experiences

Dining out, like most things in life, is a crapshoot. Even the best restaurants have bad days--and mediocre joints can turn out splendid meals if the stars align just right.

Keep this in mind when I tell you my first dining experience at Jai Thai--a new restaurant in a shopping center near Park Place Mall--was decidedly subpar, while my second experience was quite good.

Let's discuss that initial visit first, in the interests of both chronology and getting the negative out of the way.

Garrett and I decided to enjoy dinner there on a recent Friday evening. People were milling around Seri Melaka--in the same little strip mall--waiting to dine, so we were surprised when we entered Jai Thai to find only two tables occupied. The lack of customers, when there was a wait to get into a restaurant mere steps away, led me to believe a lot of people have no clue that Jai Thai even exists. There's a small lit-up sign for Jai Thai in a front window, and there's a small, tiny banner strapped to the roof, but there is no large signage for the restaurant, anywhere. (As an aside, Jai Thai seemed to be getting a fair amount of takeout business, pointing to a lack of signage, not food quality, as the problem.)

The menu offers most everything you'd expect--appetizers, soups, salads, curries, noodle dishes, seafood entrées, house specialties, and so on. Garrett and I decided to share an appetizer (shrimp rolls, $6.95), a large order of tom kha chicken soup ($8.95) and the larb salad with beef ($8.95). For main courses, Garrett picked the Thai hot basil dish with chicken ($8.95), and I selected the ubiquitous pad Thai with chicken ($8.95). Foreshadowing alert: We ordered everything both by name and number on the menu, as I sensed a potential language-barrier problem with the one and only server.

We chatted over a Thai iced tea and a Thai iced coffee (each $2), noting that both drinks seemed overly sweet, to the point that we could taste neither the tea nor the coffee. We also noticed that it was taking a while for the appetizer to arrive. The man who runs the joint came over and apologized for the wait, explaining that the appetizer sampler ($12.95) takes longer to prepare than most appetizers.

He walked away before we could explain that, um, we hadn't ordered the sampler. Soon enough, a sampler plate was delivered; we explained to our server that we had ordered the shrimp rolls, not the sampler. She apologized and whisked the sampler plate away, soon delivering the shrimp rolls. The menu describes the rolls as "mixed with fresh green mint leaves and fresh cooked shrimp served with peanut sauce." What we actually got: shrimp wrapped tightly in a crispy dough, served with a sweet pepper sauce. No mint, no peanut sauce. It tasted OK, though I couldn't find anything resembling it on the menu.

The food started arriving in bunches. The soup--including ginger, coconut milk, big chunks of tomato, lemongrass and green onion--was marred by too much sweetness, which overwhelmed the other flavors. It was still enjoyable, but nowhere as tasty and nuanced as this soup can be. The salad was also surprisingly sweet, and not as vinegary as I prefer--though it included a lot of tender beef, which helped mute the sweetness.

My pad Thai arrived at the same time as the salad, as did an order of cashew chicken ($9.95), No. 34 on the menu. Garrett had actually ordered the Thai hot basil, No. 33. We told the server, and--clearly exasperated--she produced the ticket on which she'd written No. 34, clear as day. She took the cashew chicken away and returned with the correct dish within a matter of minutes.

That elusive Thai hot basil--which Garrett ordered super-human spicy--was the meal's undisputed highlight. The chicken, basil, bell pepper, carrot and other ingredients combined perfectly. The meal's undisputed lowlight, meanwhile, was the pad Thai. It was--like the salad, soup and our drinks--too sweet; the kitchen must have made a mistake. There was no egg that I could see, nor was there any peanut flavor--or, really, any flavor but sweetness. It was awful.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Garrett and I returned on a recent Tuesday. Jai Thai is quite a nice place, unlike some dreary Thai joints in town. The restaurant's space is long and narrow, with the kitchen--the walls of which are decorated to look a bit like a hut--in the middle of everything; everyone sits in the front, and the rear is, at this point, a staging/storage area. The walls are a vibrant red, and the tables are all covered with a black vinyl/faux leather surface. It's a nice place.

Surprisingly, the restaurant was busier than it was during our Friday visit, with most of the tables in the front occupied at one point. We skipped the starters and ordered three entrées: the panang beef curry for Garrett ($9.95), the honey pork ($13.95; also comes with the house soup or salad) for me, and the Jai Thai fried rice with chicken ($8.95) to split. The food was delivered promptly, and there were no language issues.

My house soup--a big bowl of one of the better wonton soups I've ever tasted--arrived first, and the server even brought a second empty bowl in case Garrett wanted to share. The broth had a great chicken flavor--as did the wontons, which actually had a kick--and the vegetables (onion, carrot and some greens, including a bit too much cilantro) were delightfully fresh.

Garrett's panang--again, ordered ridiculously spicy--had a fantastic flavor. The tender beef and vegetables were in perfect proportions, and the peanutty liquid melded just right with the accompanying rice. My honey pork was a bit tough, and the noodles below were way overcooked (to the point that they fused into a noodle cake), but everything tasted fantastic and--even though it was all slathered with a honey sauce--was not too sweet. Go figure. The chicken fried rice was amazing: The rice was light yet infused with flavor, with the chicken, tomatoes, egg and other ingredients hit the spot.

We've already established that most things in life are a crapshoot; I recommend giving Jai Thai a shot.

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