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Cozy Thai raises the bar on Thai cuisine in WNY

Years ago I ate dinner at a Thai restaurant called Sripraphai, off the 7 subway line in Woodside, Queens. That’s where I fell in love with Thai cuisine. Vibrant, colorful salads with a palate-wakening sour chile bite, resonant coconut cream curries whose complex spices bloomed in flavor like a gardenia bud opening in the sun. I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. The Thai restaurants I’ve known in Buffalo haven’t equaled it. When I arrived at Cozy Thai, a little place on a Hamburg side street, I wasn’t expecting much. What I found did not slay my Thai craving, but Cozy Thai delivered the best Thai food I’ve had in Western New York. ¶ My main complaint about area Thai restaurants is that their dishes tend to be sweeter and less spicy, the curries blander. That’s often the case for ethnic cuisine that’s challenging to middle American palates. Restaurants do what they need to do to stay in business. That means the wilder dishes have their claws snipped, their edge filed off.

I prefer my Thai salads a little bit fierce. That’s what the papaya salad ($9) was, a tangle of shredded papaya, tomatoes, red bell peppers, green beans and fresh chile topped with roasted peanut. It was clad in a dressing that balanced the primary colors of Thai cuisine: sweet, sour, salty and spicy. Eyes widened around the table, and so did sinuses. “That’s a smelling salts of a salad,” Cat said.

The heat lingered, building with each forkful, but never savage enough to make us stop. It did make us thankful that the place offers Thai beer, an excellent fire extinguisher, and wine.

A small beef salad ($11) replaced the papaya with steak, some slices rosy in the center, red onion and cilantro. I’d asked for medium heat with all the dishes, and it left a glow. Some of the steak was chewy, but I’d eat a boot with that dressing on it.

Cozy Thai’s dining room is small and lightly decorated. Its menu is practically identical to other area Thai places. Only when appetizers landed did I start wondering. Fried tofu with peanut sauce ($5) is everywhere, but it’s usually cut in thin slices. Here it was plum-sized chunks, allowing for more pleasing contrast between crunchy shell and pillowy interior.

A fried appetizer sampler ($13) of calamari, shrimp, spring rolls and dumplings was notable not only because each element was cooked properly, the calamari crunchy yet tender inside, but it arrived hot. That is an unusual feat of timing. Chicken satay ($7) was crusted fried chicken tenders on a stick, tender inside instead of the usual chewy chicken strips.

Tom kha soup, creamy coconut broth with mushrooms and chicken ($7 large), was bracingly sour with a balancing touch of sweetness. It’s usually the other way around.

We got two fried noodle dishes, pad see ew with shrimp ($14), and pad kee mow with pork ($12). Both were built on wide rice noodles sauced and wok-tossed till faintly smoky, topped with cilantro and fried shallots. The pad see ew was mild and accommodating, while the pad kee mow was more piquant.

Among entrees, the peanut chicken ($17) is one for anyone afraid of Thai food. Crunchy strips of boneless chicken filet with sweet and savory peanut sauce, it’s amiable Asian chicken fingers.

Whole fried red snapper ($23) is a show-stopper, arriving on a raft of colorful sautéed vegetables and canned pineapple in a lake of smoky-sweet-sour-spicy chile sauce. The crispy-skinned fish had been incised along the backbone before being fried, making disassembly easier.

The most surprising dish was the house special eggplant ($15), the rare eggplant dish worth a trip by itself. Discs of the vegetable were battered and fried, covered in a saute of bamboo shoots, onion, bell pepper, shrimp and scallops, and an intriguing salty-sour brown sauce with underpinnings of tamarind and chile. Simple ingredients handled with respect, the eggplant cooked into tenderness but still soaking up sauce. It also comes in an often-requested vegetarian version, owner Tony An said.

Roast duck ($17) was a half duck, chopped bone-in, with skin that was roasted into succulence, though not crispy. It came with two dipping sauces, but flirted with bland until we took An’s suggestion and applied the sauce from the eggplant dish. He also provided a housemade sweet garlic-chile sauce that was an excellent, mildly spicy flavor booster.

Red curry with pork ($12) was resonant with a complex mixture of chile, shallot, galangal and other spices, in a barely sweet coconut gravy. It was almost as good soaked into leftover rice the next day.

Desserts included a custard topped with sticky rice topped with fresh mango ($7), three layers of contrasting sweetness crowned with mango that had been given the time to become fully ripe. A fried banana spring roll with ice cream and berry syrup ($6) was decent.

Even though Cozy Thai has been open for three years, its precision, depth of flavor and balance came as news to me. Western New York’s lovers of Thai food should see if it brings their own dragons within reach.

email: agalarneau@buffnews.com

Cozy Thai: Spicy offerings add a tongue-curling bite