Damning with faint praise is tricky business. On the one hand, there’s the compliment, as in “Belfast is a happening town …” But it’s followed by the zinger, ” … if you like that sort of place.” It’s the kind of semi-accolade often repeated about Seng Thai, a popular Asian restaurant on the stretch of road between downtown Belfast and Searsport. “It’s good Thai food,” the loyal fans always say, “for Maine.”

What exactly does that mean? Is the food flavorful but less than authentic? Are the sauces uneven? Do the “real Thai desserts” include apple crisp and peanut butter pie?

In a word, yes. Seng Thai may be popular, but the cuisine is decidedly prosaic.

You’d be forgiven for driving straight past the restaurant, which stands in the shadow of a “event facility” on an undistinguished stretch of Route 1 about a mile past the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Things improve dramatically when you walk inside and take in the 180-degree view of the Passagassawakeag – known locally as the Passy, for obvious reasons – and historic Bayside in the distance. If you go for a meal, sit by the windows, even if it means taking an extra sweater to fight drafts. Winter or summer the panorama is a stunner.

There’s little pretense here. Menus are delivered inside of plastic sleeves and the owner, Amy Rogers, and her manager, Mike Roman, wave to the regulars and willingly offer suggestions to newcomers. There’s a dry erase board listing specials in one corner, the seemingly requisite photos of Thailand’s royal family near the front door and a large NOAA map of Penobscot Bay on the wall.

A few standard starters are good bets. The Seng Spring Roll ($5.95) is fresh and healthy, filled with chicken, cucumber, basil and cilantro, plus crunchy and colorful lettuce, carrots and scallions, all neatly contained in a supple, translucent wrapper. Good by itself, it’s even better with a side of plum sauce (the kitchen spikes it with chili paste for a punch of heat) and a sprinkling of ground peanuts. I also liked Kanom Jeep ($6.95), pleated beggars’ purses made of wonton wrappers that are filled with ground meats and studded with bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and garlic. Popped into your mouth, like Chinese shumai, they explode in a mini-storm of flavors and textures – salty chicken, fatty pork and crispy vegetables – plus a pungent whiff of garlic. (They’re good enough that you may be tempted to plow through the entire plate, but remember, they’re served straight from the steamer. Take it slow, these babies are hot.) An accompanying sweet soy sauce would be cloying as is, but the kitchen adds vinegar and Thai chili paste for a pleasant, brighter finish.


Marinated chicken satay (the restaurant spells it saté) ($8.50) is less of a sure thing. Both times I tried it, the chicken, pounded thin and threaded onto a wooden skewer, was tough and rubbery and lacked the crunchy edges of well-grilled satay. Yes, the waiter said that the fillets were grilled, but they looked and tasted baked or broiled. This satay seemed like a house riff on chicken nuggets – uniform in appearance but devoid of distinctive flavor. The peanut dipping sauce, at least, was unobjectionable.

Sourcing ingredients for a Thai restaurant on the coast of Maine must present challenges. Owner Amy Rogers, whose mother Suthisa Phumsaard, opened Seng Thai in 1999, does an admirable job. Her vegetables, all purchased locally, are consistently fresh and expertly prepared. No limp peppers. No faded cabbage. She brings in Thai tea, sticky rice and the fragrant chili paste that stars in curries and stir fries. But imported ingredients can only go so far. Balance and consistency are missing here.

Take the Pad Thai ($10.95), like it or not the most familiar and popular Thai dish for American diners. The version here isn’t bad, it’s just bland. You can order it with your choice of chicken, beef, pork or tofu, and the helpful waiter notes that any dish can be made more spicy according to taste, but that’s what’s missing: taste. As one friend said, “This is just noodles…sweet noodles. What’s the point?”

Skip the Pad Thai and try Gaipad Kaprow ($11.95), a fiery plate of ground chicken, basil and bell peppers stir fried with chili paste, sweet soy and fish sauce. Spicy enough with three out of five stars to bring tears to my eyes, this dish is also deeply flavorful, like an ultra-concentrated chicken ragout. Pungent fish sauce adds saltiness and depth but doesn’t overpower the chicken. And as with many of Rogers’ entrees, the vegetables stand out. Wedges of red and green pepper are nicely cooked and retain a pleasing crunch. Watch out for the sticky rice, however. Made earlier, then reheated and served in a plastic-lined basket, it’s a gooey disappointment. Order white or brown rice instead.

Vegetables take center stage once more in the asparagus special ($12.95), where sweet onions and peppers are stir fried with asparagus and served crisp tender with a dome of rice. The vegetables are good, but they arrive swimming in a pool of overwhelmingly salty pik prow sauce. I found myself offering apologies and reaching desperately for more water and tea. Steer clear of this special and stick with the standard menu – in fact, stick with any of the curries. Enriched with coconut milk, they’re silky on the tongue and reasonably seasoned. Golden Massaman curry envelopes potatoes, onions and peppers in a subtle peanut-flavored sauce. I also liked the velvety Pha nang curry ($10.45), traditionally a mild dish, served here with broccoli, snow peas and carrots.

To my surprise, the best dish at Seng Thai was dessert. Not the “homemade peanut butter pie” on the dry erase board, but the thick and super-sweet purple sticky rice ($4.95) served beneath a shroud of coconut custard and a shower of powdered sugar. Most Thai desserts send your blood glucose soaring – they’re enriched with syrups, coconut creams and juicy tropical fruits – and the purple rice (actually black rice that turns indigo while cooking) was no exception. It was firm to the bite, like wild rice, but an ideal counterpoint to creamy spoonfuls of the sugary custard. This was nursery food for grown-ups: soothing, comforting and satisfying. One ample serving and I was ready for my nap.

Thai cooking celebrates harmony. Done right, it’s like going to a concert and discovering that you’re moved – not by an individual instrument – but by the orchestra as a whole. Unfortunately, that’s missing here. Certain vegetables or desserts stand out, but the entire experience is just so-so.

I wanted to like Seng Thai more. The views are lovely, the fans are appreciative and the staff is extraordinarily welcoming. But I didn’t. I think the locals have it right with their faint praise. It’s good Thai food – for Maine.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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