Restaurant News & Reviews

Icons of Asian fare produce a Thai winner

For 10 years now, Tony and Rosie Vikitsreth have enjoyed a solid reputation as the owners of restaurants that offer a twin bill menu of Japanese and Thai fare.

They pioneered that pairing in the Triangle, in fact, when they opened Sushi-Thai in Cary in 1998. The concept was so successful that they opened a second Sushi-Thai in Raleigh two years later. Others followed suit, and now there are at least half a dozen Japanese-Thai restaurants in the Triangle.

When the Vikitsreths announced the opening of another restaurant in April, you would have been inclined to guess they would stick with their proven formula for success.

But you'd only be half right. With Tom Yum Thai, they turned their focus exclusively on the cuisine of their native Thailand.

The result is one of the area's most extensive offerings of traditional Thai fare.

Starter options number nearly two dozen, from the familiar satay and spring rolls to less common dishes such as honey-roasted duck salad and the restaurant's namesake spicy lemongrass soup.

Fans of som tum, the hard-to-find green papaya salad, will be happy to know it's available, with or without the sticky rice and Thai beef jerky that traditionally accompany it. The kitchen does justice to the authentic fieriness of the salad, though it can adjust the heat level up or down according to customers' taste.

At the opposite end of the spice spectrum is kanom jeep, steamed dumplings whose filling of minced pork, shrimp, chicken and water chestnuts is so mildly seasoned with "Thai herbs" that one could easily mistake them for well-made Cantonese dumplings.

House-made fish cakes, served with a peanut-cucumber dip, are also rewarding.

Stuffed chicken wings come close to the mark with crunchy skin and a toothsome filling of ground shrimp, chicken, garlic, onions, cilantro and white pepper. Their success is tempered, however, by the fact that the meat is a bit dry.

On the other hand, larb -- a salad of finely chopped chicken tossed in lemon juice with ground, toasted rice and roasted chiles, served warm on a bed of lettuce -- is sure to get your taste buds firing on all cylinders.

Curries are reliably flavorful and fragrant, their perfume depending on which variation you order. Five are available, from red curry redolent of coconut, basil and chiles, to the Massaman, whose aroma is vaguely reminiscent of an Indian curry.

The kitchen turns out a respectable pad thai, the noodles firm and the sauce not too sweet (or too red with ketchup).

Deep-fried whole fish with sweet chile sauce is a keeper, too, the sides of the fish (usually flounder) scored deep to maximize the crisp surface area.

Duck Basil delivers crunch in abundance, too, in the form of boneless chunks of duck, deep-fried and then stir-fried with onions and peppers in a garlicky chile sauce, then showered with crisp fried basil leaves.

But for my money, the dish that sets Tom Yum Thai apart from the crowd is its Thai-style beef noodle soup. This one will get you through the coldest winter night. It's a meal in a bowl that serves up beef in several forms (including liver, if you want it), along with rice noodles and Asian broccoli in a cilantro- and scallion-spangled broth that's darker, thicker and a bit sweeter than Vietnamese pho.

When it comes time for dessert, you can order the traditional combination of sticky rice and mango with confidence, secure in the knowledge that if the mangoes aren't perfectly ripe, they won't serve them. In that case, homemade coconut ice cream is a more than acceptable substitute.

The original Sushi-Thai celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, though the Vikitsreths won't be organizing the festivities. They sold that restaurant to a partner before opening Tom Yum Thai.

The couple still own the Raleigh Sushi-Thai, though. And given their track record, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tom Yum Thai reach the 10-year landmark.