It used to be that Thai chicken soup was cold-season comfort food. Not so now. The Saeng Thai House lady shook her head with disapproval and said I did not want the Tom Kha Gai ($4.50), with its spicy coconut milk and tender chicken slices; I wanted the Tom Yum Koong (also $4.50) instead. Turns out, she was spot-on, and clear hot broth flavored with scallions and lemongrass did ease a sore throat.
It was a lesson in trusting expertise, and I wish I had a wise grandmother type to point through all menus with a decisive, “You want this, not this.”
Food can feel unapproachably exotic with names like Koong Rad Prik or Kai Pad Kra Pao – probably the American pie of Thai food, but a gamble for this Maine palate. I know I like Pad Thai, and I know I like Drunken Noodles. I’m adventurous, but when money is tight, I want to feel confident. Between familiar and new, familiar often wins.
Saeng Thai House is a neighborhood joint situated on a corner of outer Congress Street that’s easy to drive past. There is nothing trendy, fusion or hipster about it. But then, neither is it over-adorned with tacky paraphernalia in that “sketchy locale” designation that many people equate with authenticity. Saeng Thai House is straight-up comfort food served with a flair for detail in generous portions at a fair price.
With just six tables, the multi-toned wood-paneled space is tiny, but mismatched chairs, spotless windows and flute-like music make the dining room undeniably cozy.
The view from the large glass window is the concrete Maine Medical Center parking garage, but you do not go to Saeng Thai House for the view. You go for the food. You don’t broker deals at these tables; you pick up lunch for the office crew or grab a quick bite before a movie. Once you’ve tasted the perfection, you go back for more food that you can pack and take home.
“The Barry White of noodles,” my husband noted about the Pad Si Ew ($9.95) and its cousin Drunken Noodles ($9.95), but unlike the spicier Drunken Noodles (named not for the use of alcohol in the cooking process but for the need to quench your thirst while eating such a spicy, salty dish), the Pad Si Ew flat noodles are dressed in a mild soy-based sauce. I agreed with the Barry White assessment, “because they are so smooth.”
But let me back up. I tried to remember the last time I had eaten inside a Thai restaurant, and my memory came up blank. In my household, Thai food is enjoyed on the couch. Because of its tiny dining room, my guess is that takeout traffic provides brisk business for Saeng Thai House, and in that spirit, I divided the experience: Dining in and takeout.
First, the appetizers. Crispy Potatoes ($4.95) is a bit of a misnomer. Seven tempura-battered slices of sweet potato were hearty and soft inside the crispy casing – and with a side of plum sauce, completely accessible to even the most timid palate. Five Crab Langkoons ($4.95) tasted light, more baked than fried, and the lack of heavy oil flavor allowed for contrast between the crunchy wonton wrappers and little pockets of crabmeat-infused cream cheese.
The dumplings, however, win the appetizer prize. Saeng Thai Dumplings with chicken ($4.95) are the steamed variety, carefully constructed into six round packages with a tiny pea delicately topping each one, and the five Saeng Thai Dumplings with pork ($4.95) were fried to a perfect shade of nutmeg brown. Each appetizer was presented on a doily-covered plate with cilantro garnish and side sauces in ceramic cups with cheerful, painted roosters.
It is hard to describe Pad Thai ($9.95) to a person who has never tried it. To me, it is the gateway for Thai-style eating, and it involves a curious mild taste of peanuts and tamarind. I have a wealth of information about the tamarind plant (for instance, its alternative use as a brass and silver polish), but for these purposes, the tamarind flavor was as sweet and tangy and bright as expected. Against peanuts, crushed into the mix of noodles and not plopped on top as an afterthought, Saeng Thai House’s interpretation is, to date, the best I’ve ever experienced.
Next up, Crispy Duck with Basil (the daily special at $12.95) and its fragrant mix of sensations. Lightly battered duck slices in a fresh basil sauce with mushrooms, onions and peppers – mild but flavorful. Familiar but in no way boring.
The server advised against the Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango ($5.95), citing the shortage of sweet ripe mangoes, but there are coconut, ginger and green tea ice cream options (all $3.95), a Honey Banana ($4) and a daily special of Pumpkin Custard ($4.95).
The Honey Banana was, as described, a battered and fried banana, presented on a plate of honey. The pumpkin custard and its modern presentation in four little squares was smooth with a flan-like consistency, not overly sweet, and perfect for a rainy autumn afternoon.
One day later and ready for takeout, the brown paper bag arrived carefully folded and stapled. I was most curious about the Pak Tod ($4.95) and how the deep-fried vegetable tempura would survive the drive. I dunked a piece of still-warm, lightly battered broccoli into the cup of sweet plum sauce, and there was crunch! While some of the vegetable batter had gone soft, the majority remained crispy.
The night included Pad Si-Ew with fried tofu, Tamarind Shrimp ($12.95) and Yam Nua ($11.95), a super-spicy beef salad. I counted 10 large, super-fresh and perfectly cooked Tamarind Shrimp in the mix of sweet and sour pineapple, pepper, onion and mushroom sauce with thin straws of fresh ginger on top.
The Yam Nua was the standout, though, dining in or out. Thin slices of tender grilled beef were pressed with a crushed chili rub, slivers of red onion, lemongrass and lemon leaves. But at three spicy stars, this dish is only a winner for those with a heat-seeking palate.
Which brings me back to Barry White and those smooth noodles. Dine in or take out, Saeng Thai House makes exquisite noodles – in dumplings, fried or steamed, or in a variety of noodle dishes. I couldn’t get enough of their love, and for my assessment of Saeng Thai House, their noodles are the first, the last and the everything. I’m never going to give them up.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a freelance writer.