For the last few years, if you asked me for the best Thai restaurant in town, my recommendation was Thai Orchid on Evans Road in Williamsville. In past articles, I have extolled the pleasures of its crispy catfish salad and tom kha, coconut milk chicken soup.
Recently, after sampling some of the Thai cuisine offered by competitors, I returned for dinner, to see if my recommendation held up. I left wondering. It was good, but I remember better. What changed? The food? My palate? Both?
Thai cuisine’s glory is its interplay between sour, sweet, salty and spicy elements. Those were present during my meal, but tipped toward sweetness in some dishes at the expense of sour and spicy. It was surely salty enough, leaving me parched the next morning.
By no means was it a bad meal. Thai Orchid is a small, clean room in an Evans Road plaza, decorated liberally with orchids. It’s been run efficiently for years, with owner Chat Saiprasert in charge out front and his wife, Maneewan, running the kitchen. There’s no alcohol, and a sign still warns that you can’t bring your own, a year after the change.
We ordered crispy catfish salad ($10.95), tod mun fish cakes ($4.95), crabmeat fried rice ($10.95), and two soups, the tom kha and Vietnamese hot and sour soup with shrimp (both $3.25).
For entrees, we chose a special of crispy orange fish over tempura eggplant with coconut chile sauce ($16.95), pad see ew fried noodles with pork ($9.25), tofu with choo chee curry ($7.95) and red curry with duck ($12.95).
Tod mun is sausage-like fish patties flavored with red curry paste, scallions and other spices, deep-fried and chewy. Eight discs the size of 50-cent pieces came with a sweet chile sauce topped with roasted peanut and diced cucumber, and everyone enjoyed them.
Thai Orchid makes its own coconut milk, which is unusual for local Thai restaurants, resulting in a tom kha soup that’s thicker and creamier than most. This bowl was certainly creamy, holding sliced chicken and mushrooms, but it was dominated by sweetness. It still counted as Asian comfort food, though, and was gobbled up quick. The Vietnamese soup delivered on its name with a bracing broth that was both sour and spicy, with tomato, mung bean sprouts, scallions, canned pineapple chunks, more vegetables and two chewy shrimp.
The catfish salad featured slivers of catfish that have been floured and fried to a crisp, amid a mound of greenery that included lettuce, sliced red onion and matchsticked mango, plus cashews. The dressing started out sticky sweet but left a lingering, powerful burn. “I’m on fire,” said Cat, abandoning the rest of hers.
The crabmeat fried rice was a favorite of the table. It had been expertly wok-tossed so the rice grains were slightly smoky but still light, not clumped with oil. The rice, tumbled with scrambled egg and chunks of crabmeat, topped with fried shallots and scallions, still tasted like crab.
Our entrees arrived after a brief intermission. The tofu in the choo-chee tofu dish was only briefly fried, bringing out its meaty side. It was served with red and green bell peppers, peas and onions, for a satisfying vegetarian combination that we spooned out over rice.
The red curry with duck was served with a hearty helping of bamboo shoots and green bell peppers. The coconut curry sauce seemed rather mild despite our request for “medium” heat, which most of the table had no problem with. The skin-on pieces of duck were chewy and some sported flabby skin.
The pad see ew stir-fried noodle was a pleasantly chewy, faintly caramelized jumble of flat rice noodles, greens, egg and pork. It was a hearty Asian pasta dish that was so welcoming, we could have eaten another plate.
The fish special seemed ordinary, with battered fish pieces and Japanese eggplant slices coated in tempura batter, fried, and stacked with what seemed like another coconut curry sauce. The tempura had soaked up oil, but it was still crunchy at the edges when we received it. The curry, ordered top-of-the-scale hot, had a punch, but was still not Duff’s hot.
For dessert, we ordered coconut ice cream with fried bananas ($4.50) and three custards ($4): Thai custard on sticky rice, black rice with custard and pumpkin custard.
Everyone enjoyed coconut ice cream with crushed peanut, honey and two mini-spring rolls with banana inside their crispy fried shells. The Thai custard on sticky rice was a simple but satisfying sweet, and the black rice version was similar, but seemed more glutinous. The pumpkin custard was strips of the squash suspended in eggy custard, odd looking but tasting a bit like mild pumpkin pie filling without the cinnamon and cloves.
Service was speedy, but I wondered about a disconnect with the kitchen. After a conversation with our server about getting the duck crispy, it was not close. When specifying the heat level for the fish entree, I emphasized that we wanted hot, top of the scale. What we got was a notch hotter than the modestly spicy “medium” dishes, and a helping of red and green chile condiments on the side. “I’ll bring you some hot sauce if you like it spicy” seems insufficient.
Perhaps Thai Orchid hasn’t changed as much as my palate has. Most of my recent Thai eating, in Sun Buffalo Restaurant, Thai House and the West Side Bazaar, has been dishes made by Burmese cooks who spent time working in Thailand before immigrating to the United States. As a group, their dishes seem more bracingly sour and more intensely spiced, both in chile heat and more subtle flavors, like coriander, white pepper and garlic. They also are fonder of fishy funk, which I like but many Americans don’t.
Thai Orchid may still be the best Thai restaurant in town. I’ll return to that question after more research. This much is for sure: you can eat a tasty Thai meal there swiftly, for a very reasonable price.
Thai Orchid Cafe - 7 plates (out of 10)
Longtime Evans Street Thai place still offers good food at a good price.
WHERE: 416 Evans St., Williamsville (565-2094)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2.50-$7.50; soups and salads, $3.25-$10.95; entrees, $9.25-$19.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.