Friday, December 6, 2013
That it’s a family-run restaurant might explain, in part, why Saeng Thai House is such a cozy, charming and inviting place in which to have wonderful Thai food. The other reason is that here is authentic Thai cooking that doesn’t resort to fussy fusion concepts or other worldly-wise culinary tomfoolery.
If I have any regrets it’s that I didn’t become acquainted with this delightful jewel-box of a dining establishment sooner.
Just hearing owner Ralita Sarapak’s beautiful, heavily accented sing-song voice is welcoming enough as she shows you to a table and recites the day’s specials.
Her mother, Saeng Woramalee, is in charge of the kitchen. She cooked for years as a professionally trained chef in her native Thailand before venturing onto our shores nearly 20 years ago.
My first visit occurred when I joined a friend for lunch there a few weeks ago. I was incredulous to go to what seemed like a store-front dive in a sketchy part of town. I hadn’t realized then that Saeng Thai has been in Portland a lot longer than I have. As soon as I walked in I was hooked. I felt as though I had entered a privileged sphere where only locals knew to go.
From there on, it was one delightful dish after another. One of the blackboard specials that we ordered was scallion pancakes. This is hardly a novel dish on Asian menus. But these were irresistibly good--a scallion infused savory that was delicious.
For a main course, my lunch partner, a vegetarian, ordered a plate of vegetables and tofu in yellow curry sauce. A fussy vegetarian to boot he thought the dish was perfect: the curry was bracing, the vegetables very fresh and laced with complex flavors.
I had another special of the day—boneless roasted duck with broccoli, snow peas, peppers, carrots, green pea and pineapple in choo chee curry. This is a less pungent red curry sauce without being treacly sweet--an otherwise common stumbling among lesser Thai chefs.
Totaling $20 for two for lunch, this was a great meal at any price.
I was so impressed with the food that I went back a few days later for dinner for more surprises and pleasures
We started off with the chicken dumplings. These were nothing less than revelatory. The wonton wrappers encased a delicious, enticing filling of chicken and shrimp and essential spices. I could have made an entire meal out of these. But we didn’t stop there.
Another special was Udon noodles--flat wheat noodles in a bracing green curry with shrimp. Here again, the range of flavors and textures were wonderful.
For a main course my friend ordered the beef salad, a cornucopia of Thai ingredients that included hot basil, lemon grass, lemon leaves, celery and scallions in an assertive, spicy sauce.
I chose duck again, this time in tamarind sauce—spicy and sweet but tempered with snow peas, red pepper, ginger, pineapple and scallions.
We didn’t sample the desserts, but there is a comprehensive list that includes homemade ice creams like coconut, ginger or green tea as well as bananas with honey, fried ice cream, sweet sticky rice with mango or Thai custard.
Portland has a lot of Thai restaurants, many of which are redundant if not mediocre. On the other hand, my other favorite, Boda—that street-food-smart and hip establishment on Longfellow Square—has long been the defining standard for exciting Thai food in this town. There are probably a few others that make the grade that I haven’t been to yet.
For now I’m perfectly happy to add Saeng Thai to my short list of favorites.Tweet
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.