In its new location, Thai Esaan has a dining room. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Am I officially a New Englander now that I’ve begin to locate places by what used to be there? I grew up in Pennsylvania, but when I stopped by Thai Esaan in Portland the other evening, I found myself feeling nostalgic for Back Bay Grill, the fine-dining restaurant that occupied the space under Larry Matthews Jr. for decades. It closed in 2022.

Thai Esaan moved in the next year, after its original location on outer Forest Avenue was damaged in a fire. It’s transformed the previously luxe, elegant space into a casual sit-down and takeout spot that suits its casual selection of Thai classics. Photos of Tiger Woods, the Red Sox and other sports celebs hang by the door. Barebones industrial shelving holds condiments, utensils and bags of food ready for pickup near the cash register. A big-screen TV hangs over the bar.

There were just a couple tables at the old Thai Esaan. Now, there is plenty of space to eat at the restaurant, though when I was there on a Wednesday evening in January, just a small handful of people was taking advantage. The menu at the new venue lists a familiar selection of items like spring rolls, dumplings, green papaya salad, tom yum soup, noodle dishes such as pad Thai and drunken noodles, and a handful of entrees in which the eater decides the protein (chicken, pork, tofu, vegetables, beef, duck, shrimp or crispy chicken) in a variety of preparations and heat levels.

Thai Esaan also lists several signature dishes on its menu, including khao mun gai, a steamed chicken and rice dish that our Press Herald restaurant critic praised as “extraordinary” when he reviewed the restaurant in 2016. He gave the homey food at the humble spot four stars.

The red curry with shrimp at Thai Esaan. The dish comes with rice. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

I went with red curry and shrimp ($21), medium heat – and, because who can resist a dumpling? Certainly, not me – I added six pan-fried pork dumplings ($8) to my order. A delay at the supermarket, where I’d made a stop to pick up a few items, made me a few minutes late to get my dinner order, but the food was warm when I got there and still warm when I got home some 15 minutes later.

As I dug in, the treat of a takeout dinner, and radiating good cheer from the young woman at the counter who’d handed me my order, made me feel cheerful, too. The food did nothing to diminish my good mood. The shrimp were plump, plentiful and tender. The red curry broth had a pleasant but not intimidating kick. Coarsely sliced red and green bell peppers, bamboo shoots, a few fragrant basil leaves and nicely cooked green beans (bright green, fresh, with snap) swam in the rich broth.

Pan fried pork dumplings from Thai Esaan. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

The dumplings came with a sweet, soy-based dipping sauce, and before I knew it, three of them had disappeared.

I miss Back Bay Grill. The food was always excellent, and the place had an old-school formality that took me back to the nights in the early 1970s when my parents headed out to hear the Philadelphia Opera, my mom in a black velvet cape and smelling deliciously of perfume, my dad in a bowtie, his dress shoes gleaming. But time marches on. And tasty Thai takeout, or eat-in, is always a nice option.

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