Stumbling across Thai Lotus for the first time, you might understandably mistake the place for a generic strip mall eatery. There’s the name, for starters, as common among Thai restaurants as, say, Golden Dragon is among Chinese takeout shops.
Just inside the door, you’re not surprised to see a large painting of Singha, the mythical golden lion familiar to patrons of Thai restaurants (and to fans of Thailand’s famous beer) everywhere. On the host stand, a small Buddha statue meditates over the usual dish of complimentary mints and toothpick dispenser. Looking beyond into the small, spare dining room, you spot the first clue that this is no ordinary Thai joint: framed silk prints that echo the restaurant’s name not with the traditional stylized lotus, but with the flowers scattered throughout lush contemporary tropical forest scenes.
Then comes the second clue, as the man at the host stand greets you warmly — with an unmistakable eastern North Carolina accent. That would be the restaurant’s owner, Percy Whittenton. Whittenton, a native of Dunn in Harnett County, has wanted to own a restaurant since he was a child, but life took him down a different pathway. Then, after more than 30 years in the business world (half of it in the tech industry), he got laid off.
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But there was a silver lining. “I got a great severance package,” Whittenton says, which he used to make his childhood wish come true. He has never been to Thailand, but chose to open a Thai restaurant simply because the cuisine opened his Southern-bred palate to a world of new flavors some 20 years ago. Ever since, he’ll tell you, Thai food has been his favorite.
To learn the ropes of the business, Whittenton worked without pay for six months in a Thai restaurant. Then he hired chef Phikun “Mama Kun” Sribanjon Ubon Ratchathani, a native of Thailand whose 30-year resume spans the globe from the prestigious Mandarin Hotel in Bangkok to Japan to the American Midwest — and finally to Thai Lotus in Cary, where she could be near her daughters who live in the area.
Ratchathani’s experience shows in her menu, a broad survey of the Thai repertoire that includes all the usual suspects as well as a sampling of the chef’s repertoire of specialty dishes. The list of appetizers and salads alone runs to 15 options. Over the course of three meals (a solo lunch and two dinners with my wife), I was barely able to scratch the surface of the five-page menu.
But I was able to sample widely enough to understand why, six months after opening, the Thai Lotus dining room is frequently well-filled. I discovered why orders of Thai-spiced fried wings went out to several tables, for instance, and why curries are a favorite here.
All the curries are scratch-made, from a simple green curry chicken to elegant specialty presentations, such as roasted duck with red curry, and soft shell crabs in a light green curry asparagus sauce. My only quibble is that curries ordered “Thai hot” appear to get their extra heat (and not enough of it at that) from nothing more than a sprinkling of crushed red chiles. A few spangles of fresh Thai chile in the mix would not be amiss.
Nam tok beef delivers an authentic kick, though, in the chile-spiked blend of lime juice and fish sauce that dresses a salad featuring tender petals of grilled beef riddled with slivers of red onion, scallion and whole basil leaves. So does som tam, an addictive green papaya salad I’d happily order twice each meal: once as a starter, and again as a bracing side.
I’d nibble on that second order to refresh my palate between bites of a spicy eggplant noodle bowl. Or maybe pad prik pork, a peppery stir fry with straw mushrooms and crisp red and green bell peppers. Or better still, one of the chef’s specialties: ka prod lamb, which serves up four grilled chops in a spicy basil sauce.
If I was eating lunch at Thai Lotus, I’d skip the watery ginger-dressed salad that comes with lunch specials, and splurge on an order of som tam instead. And yes, I’m aware that I may well have a green papaya monkey on my back.
The wait staff at Thai Lotus are as warmly welcoming as its owner, by and large, but widely variable in levels of experience and training. Lapses in attentiveness are more common than they should be, especially so when the place is busy.
Which is fairly often, in my experience — and no wonder, given the restaurant’s location on the southern outskirts of Cary, where until now, residents have had to drive several miles for Thai food. Clearly, locals have discovered that they’re the happy beneficiaries of one person’s childhood dream and another’s wish to be near her family.
3450-150 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual contemporary Asian, spare but colorful and cheery
Noise level: low
Recommended: wings, nam tok beef, som tam, curries, chef’s special entrees
Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly.
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; modest 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.