Americans have learned to use chopsticks when dining on Chinese food, so why don't we utilize spoons to eat Thai cuisine? It would be helpful if local Thai restaurateurs clued us in regarding the native cutlery etiquette, if only to prevent potentially embarrassing episodes for Americans who visit the country for the first time. To wit: being stared at in disbelief as I speared a slice of roasted duck with my fork to launch lunch at a restaurant in Sukhothai. Doing this, I quickly learned, is akin in uncouthness to sticking a steak knife in your mouth. There are, in fact, no knives served with meals — just a spoon to eat with and a fork to push foods onto the spoon.
Neither Tamarind Thai nor Sawaddee Thai-Sushi ease the learning curve: Both Normandy Isle establishments (located just blocks from each other) present the typical American setup of knife, spoon, and fork; chopsticks are available upon request (used in Thailand only for noodle bowls). And neither place serves the ubiquitous quartet of flavorings that sit upon every Thai tabletop: sugar, red pepper flakes, chili peppers in rice vinegar, and nam pla (fish sauce). This allows for customization of one's meal.
In every other way, however, Sawaddee and Tamarind are spot-on in terms of cooking authentically tasty Thai cuisine.
Sawaddee, the upstart, is inauspiciously tucked off Normandy Circle. In the five years since Montri and Riam Putlek opened this petite room, locals have learned the location quite well. The 16 seats are consistently filled and so are numerous takeout orders. Another eight stools run in an L-shape against a sushi bar that fairly dominates the space.
Sawaddee's smallness works to its advantage, making the dining experience seem intimately personal. Owner Riam even waits and buses tables in between orchestrating things and striking up conversations with the regulars — the many, many regulars. Sometimes it felt as though we were the only ones in the room whom she didn't know. Service was swift, efficient (quick on the water refills!), and attentive to one's limits regarding spiciness.
Perhaps too attentive: Our order of green papaya salad (som tam), "flavored with hot peppers," was not flavored with hot peppers. All the other requisite ingredients were on hand: the shredded, unripened fruit; green beans; tomatoes; and peanuts, in a tart lime juice, palm sugar, and fish sauce dressing. When we requested hot sauce, our waiter offered to take the dish back to the kitchen instead and spice it up there. It returned in authentically fiery (and delectable) form; this is one of the most piquant of all Thai dishes.
Roasted duck in red curry (kaeng phet or gaeng ped), requested medium-spicy, arrived mild. Still, the abundant duck slices were soft and tasty in cahoots with bell pepper, onion, peas, tomatoes, baby corn, pineapple chunks, peeled green grapes, and basil leaves. Steamy jasmine rice was plated alongside.
If you want beer or wine with your dinner, it's BYOB (no corking fee). Prices are more than fair: $3.95 to $6.95 for soups and $10.95 to $15.95 for most noodle, rice, and protein dishes. A lunch special brings a choice of a dozen entrées, with spring rolls or soup, for $6.95.
Sawaddee's pad thai featured flattened squares of tender pork threaded with a stir-fry of rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg scrambles, and scallions (crushed peanuts and wedge of lime on the side). The flavor was on the sweet side and the color of the noodles was somewhat reddish — either from tamarind juice or ketchup (an occasional secret Thai ingredient).
We preferred Tamarind's version: Flattened squares of tender chicken replaced Sawaddee's pork, but otherwise it was a heftier portion of the same ingredients — without the sweetness.
Tamarind Thai, opened in 2004, is a collaborative effort between well-known Thai chef Vatcharin Bhumichitr and Day Longsomboon — the latter still serving as head chef at the restaurant. Tamarind eschews sushi and instead presents an extensive menu that includes some regional Thai specialties not found down the block. For instance, there is laap gai, minced chicken mixed with chili, basil leaves, and lime juice, and bamee moo dang — deliciously sweet slices of barbecued pork with thin, squiggly egg noodles, too much garlic, and not enough greens, all in a potently meaty broth.
Duck in red curry brought shriveled pieces of bird that were tasty if tough, but the red chili-hued sauce rang true, the heat harmonized with sweet, soothing notes of pineapple chunks and coconut milk. You seemingly get more bird for the same buck ($18.95) via half of a roasted, orange-imbued duck with sweet and tangy tamarind glaze.
Green papaya salad, alas, was served sans spiciness — or, more accurately, it was pricked with only the slightest piquancy. Guess it makes sense for restaurants to play it safe with the chili, but waiters really should inquire heat preference beforehand. Like at Sawaddee, the servers are friendly, get the job done in adept fashion, and, along with owner Day, seem to be familiar with a host of regulars.
Singha and Chang beers are available for $4 per bottle; the latter is lighter (and, in Thailand, cheaper). A short list of affordable, spice-friendly wines range in price from $25 to $35. Rice and noodle dishes go from $9.95 to $13.95, with most main dishes costing $13.95 to $19.95. Lunch selections, which include soup or salad, run $7.95 to $9.95.
Thai doughnuts with condensed milk were, at both establishments, fresh, hot, and tasty. Thai coffee and tea were both on hand and prepared with aplomb. Tamarind is more extensive and a little more expensive than at Sawaddee, but either makes a great choice for lunch or dinner. Take that spoonful of advice to Normandy Isle the next time you want Thai food.