Welcome to Thailand
By Mark Nixon
It says a good deal about a restaurant when “welcome” seems encoded in its DNA. I don’t mean the forced, smarmy friendliness of, say, certain presidential can didates. No, I’m talking about an unspoken and understated message: This is more than a business. Here is our home, our family. Welcome.
I felt that way when I first stepped into Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant on Lansing’s south side in 2014. I felt the same way when I entered Thai Princess a few weeks ago. It’s curious that both are located in somewhat anonymous-looking strip malls — about as un-homey as you can get.
The welcoming tone at Thai Princess manifested itself during one visit, when I watched a server bolt from the store and chase after a departing customer to hand her the leftovers box she had left behind. During our two visits, our servers were prompt without being pushy, helpfully navigating me through a menu that was a bit of a mystery to me.
So now we get down to stems and seeds, as we said in the hippie years: the menu. I sometimes fancy myself a worldly diner. I’ve eaten ant eggs and fried grasshoppers in southern Mexico, fermented shark in remote Iceland and raw squid in Japan. Yet I confess to being a stranger in a strange land when it comes to Thai food. My previous experiences with Thai cuisine can be summed up in two words: frickin’ hot! It’s a relief to say my experiences at Thai Princess left me with taste buds largely un-burned.
The food here orbits around a binary star of curry and mango. (There are outliers beyond the influence of those two stars, and we’ll visit them in a moment.) My recommendation is to start with a curry puff appetizer ($5.99). These croissant-shaped goodies have a flaky pie crust exterior. Inside is a warm mix of minced chicken, potatoes, onions and a dash of curry. Think of a curry puff as a miniaturized Thai version of a Cornish pasty.
Next up, try the mango avocado salad ($6.99). What makes this work is a slightly spicy lime dressing drizzled over shredded mango, cashews, avocado chunks and slivers of red onion. This salad is as good as it looks.
My mango-mania continued with Mango Delight ($16.99), deep fried shrimp with chunks of ripe mango in a sweet-and-sour sauce. It’s similar in taste and texture to sweet-and-sour dishes found in Chinese restaurants. I’d rate this dish a 5 out of 10 scale.
Judy ordered the mango curry with pork ($12.99): pork, mango and tomatoes in a broth spiced with red curry, basil and chili. The spice was toned down a bit upon request. Even so, the after burn was enough for me to demur after a few bites.
On a previous visit, we went the non-mango/curry route. My son, Andrew, is an avowed fan of Thai food. (San Francisco has the best, he says.) He started with a fried tofu appetizer ($4.99). It came with a sweet tamarind sauce, which was the best part. The tofu looked and tasted as if it came out of a package. I prefer the Japanese take on tofu, agedashi tofu. It’s lightly breaded fresh tofu, pan-fried and served with a smoky soy sauce.
We had better success with the vegetarian coconut noodle entree ($11.99). Ultra-thin rice noodles swim in a broth of coconut milk and bean sauce, accompanied by onions, scallions and bean sprouts. The flavor of coconut made this dish dance across my palate.
We also shared Fresh Rolls ($4.99), rice paper wraps holding bean curd, bits of cucumber, avocado, lettuce, scallions and shredded carrot. “Fresh” is the operative word, and that’s a good thing. The overall effect, though, was blandness. The accompanying tamarind sauce came to the rescue — a little.
Artistry and eye appeal have a great deal to do with a dining out, and for no other reason than that, Thai Princess is worth visiting. Both on your plate and throughout the dining room, the hand of an artist — or artists — is at work.
Spiral swirls of thin radish and onion rise up from the plate. Delicate slivers of mango pose in still-life pirouettes.
The decor is equally inviting. Multicolored glass bottles are splayed out horizontally on a wall partition. The drop ceiling is a parquetry of wood and opaque glass. There’s a miniature dinghy where artificial roses bloom perpetually. And, we were told, the owner hand-made the back cushions on some of the bench seats.
All of the above say, “Welcome.”
By Gabrielle Johnson
People have suggested Thai Princess to me over the past few years, but I didn’t listen. Frankly, I don’t know much about Thai food. I know that peanuts are in volved and that coconut milk and curry usually play a role. My ignorance was showing, so it was time for the fiancé and I to educate ourselves on this cuisine.
First of all, the interior of the Thai Princess is inviting and unique. Tables are lined up opposite a long bench with cushioned backs, and the architecturally interesting ceiling and walls lend an air of intimacy to the place. For our lunch, I chose the pineapple curry with chicken ($14.99), but I had virtually no idea what to expect. It was a sort of stew, a spicy broth studded with chunks of pineapple, sautéed chicken and pieces of tomato. I spooned it over my white rice, which made me think of jambalaya. For my typical American palate, the level of spice was flirting with the limits of comfort. The dish is spicy, but it’s mercifully laced with coconut milk. The coconut milk cools the burn so only your nose runs and your head doesn’t explode.
He had pad Thai with chicken ($8.99), one of his favorites. Eaters, don’t be offput by the crushed peanuts in pad Thai. They add a great bit of crunch and saltiness to the noodles, chicken and cilantro.
On a return visit, we started with spring rolls ($4.99), which arrived piping hot with sweet chili sauce, and curry puffs ($5.99), little envelopes of chicken, curry, potato and onion with cucumber dip. The curry puff dough was buttery, delicious and messily flaky like a croissant. The cucumber dip perfectly complemented the curry.
My sesame noodles with chicken ($11.99) were freshly prepared, and the bite of the accompanying Sriracha sauce was not overpowering in heat or taste. His pad Chinese broccoli ($12.99) — again with chicken because we are more boring than I realized — was the star of the show. Upon reflection, I think that one of the reasons I don’t eat a lot of Asian cuisine is because I love vegetables, and I love them simply prepared and barely cooked. Give me a steamed carrot that is still crunchy, and I’m happy. But present me with the English favorite mushy peas, and I’m likely to sneak and feed it to the dog. Mushy vegetables, to me, are a tragedy.
The pad Chinese broccoli was perfectly prepared, with no mushy vegetables to be found. The broccoli stalks were beautifully sliced and crunched when you bit into them. To top it off, the accompanying white rice was presented on its own small plate and pressed into the shape of a heart. We went home happy.
For our third visit, we started with fresh rolls with shrimp ($5.99). The two fat rolls were cut in half, showing you what they’re made of — avocado, lettuce, carrot, cucumber and shrimp wrapped in an opaque chilled piece of rice paper and served with sweet chili sauce and crushed peanuts. They were served with spiralized nests of carrots and daikon radish and nestled atop bright purple cabbage leaves. The fresh vegetables, both the garnishes and the actual prepared ingredients, put a smile on my face.
On a previous visit, we had been mistakenly delivered a plate of coconut noodles ($11.99, again with the chicken), and my jaw hit the table before the waiter realized his mistake. This was a plate of pure color, with carrot, red cabbage and green onion towering over the thinnest noodles I’ve ever seen. I had to make them mine. On our next visit I did just that. This dish was a flavor explosion, and the herbs, vegetables, noodles, coconut milk and yellow bean sauce came together perfectly. We devoured it.
Other highlights include the chicken satay ($6.99), which was fresh and pleasantly spiced, and the pad oyster sauce ($12.99, and I went off the reservation and chose beef this time), which also featured crunchy vegetables and heart-shaped rice. With the Rama noodles ($11.99), however, we hit a snag. The vegetables this time were limp, floppy and room temperature. Disappointing. We drowned our sorrow in a pot of jasmine tea. Actually, we drank this tea on every visit — and would gladly drink it every day for the rest of our lives.
A noticeable theme was the pokiness of service. On more than one visit, we had to ask if we could finally order. It was not a big deal for us, because our evening plans generally consist of going home and hanging out with the dog (who, incidentally, also loves vegetables). But this could be an issue for workers trying to get back to the office after lunch. Also, curiously, we were never given chopsticks, only forks. But I’m not complaining. This made it easy to shovel the inevitable chicken dish into my mouth with minimal interruption.
11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-9 p.m.
Saturday; noon-8 p.m.
Sunday 1754 Central Park Drive, Okemos thaiprincessmi.com, (517) 381-1558