Entering Baan Thai, you’re greeted by a smiling waiter and a compact, tidy dining room decorated in a style best described as generic strip mall international eatery: color photos of the dishes Scotch-taped to the walls, a small TV in one corner, a scattering of folk art, plasticized tablecloths.
It’s only after you’re seated and look back toward the entrance that you see, suspended from the ceiling, a small constellation of brightly colored parasols. These are your first clue to Baan Thai’s distinct personality.
The second is the woman working in the tiny open kitchen shoehorned into the space that, in its previous incarnation, served as a sushi bar in a Japanese restaurant. From time to time, she’ll look up over the counter and smile, raising one eyebrow as if to ask, “How do you like my cooking?”
The woman is owner/chef Kelly Chamnansuan, a native of Chanthaburi Province on the southern coast of Thailand. Since coming to the Triangle, Chamnansuan has worked more than a decade in area restaurants, including Sawasdee and Thai Cafe. She opened Baan Thai, her first restaurant, in 2015.
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Odds are you’ll smile back at her, indicating that you are indeed enjoying your meal. And if you prefer your Thai on the mild side, you’ll appreciate the fact that experience has taught her how to cater to a Western palate. You can count on restrained heat levels (unless you order a dish “Thai hot”) and nuanced flavors throughout a menu that includes all your familiar favorites as well as house specialties such as sexy soft shell crabs and fried tilapia filet with cashews.
That even applies to “spicy” Pad Thai Chantaboon, a dish named for the waterfront community in Chamnansuan’s native province where it originated. She’ll tell you that it’s the garlic, onion and red chiles that distinguish this regional variation on the classic rice noodle dish, but rest assured that they meld seamlessly with the traditional palm sugar and tamarind in a balanced sauce that lightly dresses a skein of noodles topped with jumbo shrimp, tender petals of chicken breast and bright, snap-tender vegetables.
Fresh vegetables are another recurring theme at Baan Thai, evident even in humble fried spring rolls, where crunchy threads of carrot and cabbage encased in shatter-crisp shells are gratifying evidence of scratch preparation. And in fresh shrimp basil rolls, where carrot, cucumber and lettuce join the star ingredients in a pastel patchwork seen through supple, translucent wrappers.
The chef dials back on the customary level of fish sauce funk in her take on classic Thai salads, allowing the lime to shine. The result, though not strictly authentic, gives a clean, refreshing twist to som tam (green papaya salad) and neua nam tok (ragged tatters of lean grilled beef tossed with tomato, red onion and scallion).
In another nod to Western custom, larb (minced chicken salad) is served with a small garnishing salad of cucumber, carrot and torn lettuce – presumably a token nod to the whole lettuce leaves that are traditionally used to pick up the larb and convey it to your mouth. Turns out larb is just as tasty, if not quite as much fun, when eaten with a fork.
Pad prik basil beef is one of my go-to Thai stir-fry dishes, and Baan Thai scratches the itch with a medley of tender beef, onions, peppers and green beans in a robust brown sauce (I like it Thai hot), flanked by a fragrant dome of jasmine rice. I just wish it had more than a sparse handful of basil leaves.
Coconut curries are well-represented, with an outlier creamy pineapple curry joining the usual suspects – green, yellow, massaman, Panang – in a mix-and-match offering with the protein of your choice. If you’re feeling adventurous, let your eye wander over to the list of house specialties, where an extra couple bucks or so buys an upgrade to the likes of grilled salmon green curry, mixed seafood Panang curry and red curry duck.
That is, if you can resist the siren call of tamarind duck: bite-size pieces of boneless duck that live up to their “crispy” billing, showered with shards of fried garlic and chopped scallion, and nesting on a bed of fresh vegetables in a piquant tamarind sauce. Or khao soy (aka Chiangmai noodles), which serves up chicken and egg noodles in a red curry sauce, showered with crispy noodles and red onion.
If sticky rice with mango is in the offing for dessert, by all means go for it. If it isn’t, get the homemade coconut ice cream. What the heck, get the ice cream either way.
That way, when Kelly Chamnansuan looks over to see how you’re enjoying your meal, your smile will be an ear-to-ear grin.
758 W. Williams St., Apex
Atmosphere: casual strip mall eatery
Service:friendly and efficient
Recommended:fried spring rolls, fresh shrimp basil rolls, som tam, tamarind duck, khao soy, curries, coconut ice cream
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.