This week, Bhan Thai celebrates its 10th anniversary. A decade of operation is not insignificant for any business, and certainly not for a restaurant.
As the many loyal customers of the popular Midtown restaurant know, there are plenty of reasons to continue to dine at Bhan Thai. First, Memphians like spicy food. Our Southern palate takes to the fresh and fiery flavors of Thai cuisine. We like the herbaceous symphony that creates a green curry, the peppers that punch up the panang curry.
Another reason is the welcoming calm inside the restaurant, in an old house on Peabody, and the conviviality of the patios (there's an upper patio with a bar and a lower one that stretches down the east side of the house.)
A co-worker who moved here a few years ago appreciates the Memphis dining scene but feels compelled to roll his eyes at restaurants in strip malls or in converted houses. But when I visit a restaurant in a converted house, whether in Memphis or another city, I go in with high expectations. I like the cozy rooms and the feeling that I'm an invited guest instead of a paying customer. (According to the restaurant's website, Bhan Thai — surely not coincidentally — means "house.")
The menu at Bhan Thai is diverse and plentiful, though not to the point of being overwhelming. Many Asian restaurants trend to a menu of a hundred-plus dishes, some with such small variations that instead of choice they offer confusion.
At dinner, Bhan Thai offers four curry dishes, eight entrees, nine house specialties, five noodle and rice dishes, and a few salads, soups and appetizers (all are available at lunch, though a special lunch menu is a bargain). So there's plenty to ponder, plenty to discuss (and that's part of the fun of dining out), but not enough to induce menu meltdown.
We started dinner with an order of son-in-law eggs and fried fish cakes, both of which we enjoyed. The eggs were hard-boiled, fried in a crisp, thin batter, split in half and served with a sweet and spicy sauce that tasted of tamarind and fish sauce.
The fish cakes were pressed patties of ground mackerel and chili paste with a distinct hint of citrus, most prominently orange.
We chose Yum Tuna and a green curry, with beef, for entrees. It was an excellent selection for sharing. The green curry was superb, and a testament to the beauty of Thai cooking.
While the coconut cream tames the heat of the chilies, it also allows the flavor to bloom; it's rich and fatty, just the kind of place where flavor loves to live. Each bite is spicy, yet comforting, too. And the fresh herbs bring another layer of complexity to the dish, particularly the Thai basil with its pungent, licorice-kissed leaves.
The Yum Tuna is no less delicious, though very different. Here the flavors are seared onto the generous fish steak and mixed in a clear sauce full of aromatics such as lemongrass and onion, brightened with lime juice, given body with fish sauce and heat with chilies. It's all served over a fresh cucumber salad.
At lunch, a small cup of hot and sour soup comes to the table as soon as you sit. It's just a few ounces of clear soup, but it whets the appetite. You can order from the full menu, but the lunch specials are a great bargain at about $9 for fresh and flavorful food.
My favorite dish at lunch is the Bangkok spicy chicken. Ground chicken is highly seasoned, sauteed with peppers, onions and green beans, topped with that great Thai basil and served with a hot chili sauce.
Take this seriously: If you ask for extra-spicy, it's going to be hot. The food is bursting with flavor as it is, but I wanted the Bangkok chicken spicier when I placed a to-go order a year or so ago. It was too intense to enjoy, though it turned out that someone had accidentally hit the "dancing man hot" button three times when entering my order.
Last week we tried an order of Spicy Old Man for the second lunch entree (it's not a lunch special). The eggplant was divine, lovely velvet pillows nestled in a bed of onion, peppers and chicken in a spicy brown sauce.
Bhan Thai is good all around. Here's to another 10 years.
Address: 1324 Peabody.
Telephone: (901) 272-1538.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Reviewer’s choices: Green curry ($13.95); Yum Tuna ($21.95); Spicy Old Man ($13.25); (Bangkok spicy chicken ($8.95 lunch);
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars