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By MARK NIXON
Each time I enter a restaurant to begin a review, a niggling question lurks: Does it always have to be about the food?
My gut answer — yes, that part of my anatomy which really does the thinking and directs my actions — is that OF COURSE it’s about the food.
While in no way damning with faint praise, when I walked into Thai Nation Bistro, I began channeling Renee Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire.” They had me at hello.
There’s a genuine folksiness to the place. Along one wall are scarves for sale, made by a local artisan. Feathered hats are whimsically fashioned into lampshades for the overhead lighting. There’s even a primer in Thai language, written on a chalkboard hanging over the kitchen counter: “Sa’ wat dee,” it means “hello.”
It’s not an easy trick being folksy inside a tiny strip mall on the edge of Williamston’s business district, but Thai Nation manages to pull it off.
OK, I can hear the grumbles: Folksy-wolksy, cutesy-wutesy, yada-yada … What about the food?
Good news on that front as well. The food is darn good. On one visit, we were joined by our regular dining companions, Bruce and Jan, as well as friends from Japan, Kei and Aya.
Barely after we settled into our chairs, our server set small bowls of soup before us. We hadn’t even ordered drinks. But that was fine with us. The complimentary soup is a nice touch. It was translucent chicken broth with shredded carrots and fresh snippets of scallions. I thought it was spot-on. Kei, who has a good deal of experience with Thai dining, later wrote that the soup “didn’t have a strong taste, but (was) not very salty and felt healthy. It may not be liked by some people who like stronger tastes, but mild and not spicy soup doesn’t destroy the main dish we will order.”
Nicely put. Judy had the traditional Thai soup, Tom Yum, with shrimp ($16.99). Along with the shrimp were onions, lemon grass, lime juice and “cooking milk” — that’s how the menu describes it. I gave this dish a “tasty” score while Judy gave it a “terrific” score.
I had bamboo curry with beef brisket ($16.99), with bamboo shoots, Thai ginger, carrot, basil and bell peppers. It came with jasmine rice on the side, which I tossed into the curry. As with every dish we tried during two visits, the serving portions are U-U-UGE as Bernie Sanders likes to say.
More important than size is heat, which Thai Nation Bistro seems to intuit on two levels. My curry dish — closer to soup than stew — arrived steaming hot. I had to let it sit a spell.
More importantly, the smartest part of this dish — and the entire menu, for that matter — is that the customer is allowed to choose a desired spice level. What a concept! Thai Nation lets you pick a spiciness ranging from 1 to 5. To make it better, when I mentioned to our server that I can’t tolerate much spice, he said I could order a spice level of one-half. I did, and it was perfect.
On a separate visit, we shared an $8 appetizer of fried cabbage rolls. Insert Bernie Sanders quote. A light tempura batter enfolds a big chunk of al dente cabbage with ground chicken and carrot. A sweet and sour dipping sauce complements the entire package.
A word about another sauce — soy. I’ve tasted a great number of soy sauces, some good, some dreadful. The soy sauce at Thai Nation is unique. It’s subtly smoky and tangy, and I was told that rice wine vinegar might be part of the secret. I honestly don’t know. Our server said the brand name is Maggi and can be purchased locally in some local Asian food stores. I recommend giving it a try.
Speaking of our server: He was the only one working the dining area on both visits. Yet, he took ample time to explain the various dishes, how they are prepared, and made recommendations on spice levels. For those ill-acquainted with Thai food, this was a big plus.
Other pluses included the Thai Fried Rice and noodle soup, each $12.99. Portion size? Cue Bernie. I especially liked the thick noodles swimming in a clear broth.
Kudos to the peanut sauce that came with the Pad Thai ($12.99). This side dip had real chunks of peanuts, not some jazzed-up crunchy peanut butter as I’ve had in other places.
If there is a genuine downside to this genuinely folksy restaurant, it’s the size. The L-shaped dining room has no more than a dozen tables, and many of those small. Judging from the number of patrons, including several coming for takeout orders, size doesn’t matter. You be the judge.SHE ATE: A hidden gem
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
When I think of Thai food, I think of the clean, refreshing scent of lemongrass.
I think of coconut milk, lime and peanuts. I think, of course, of Pad Thai, but I also think of vibrant, thinly sliced vegetables and coconut. I think of the chicken larb that I ate in Australia, a country too heavily influenced by Asian cuisines. Larb is a quintessential Thai dish and features ground meat (chicken, in my case), spiked heavily with fresh herbs like mint and cilantro and studded with red onion and chilis. I scooped it up in fresh, crunchy lettuce leaves and my love for Thai food blossomed.
So, it was with excitement that Mr. She Ate and I began our drive to Williamston for dinner at Thai Nation Bistro one evening. All the way there, I regaled him with tidbits I was finding online. Anticipation was high, and I was expecting authentic, mind-blowing food. What I found, however, was something that looked like it came more from a mall food court than from a food stand in Bangkok. My brain, swirling with visions of bright green limes and fresh mint leaves, adjusted its expectations.
For a starter, we asked for an order of chicken spring rolls. As we waited for them, we were presented with an amuse bouche of soup — a clear broth full of chopped cabbage, onions,and carrots — an unexpectedly light and delicious way to start the meal.
Our plate of spring rolls arrived with four rolls — two with chicken and two without, curiously. These are the deep-fried version, so if you’re expecting a clear wrapper around the fresh ingredients, don’t get your hopes up.
I had Pad Thai with chicken, which I ordered to be a “one” on the “zero to five” spice scale described to us by our (incredibly attentive and knowledgeable) waiter. After my first bite, I decided that next time I would request at least a level two on spice, because this was bland. Mr. She Ate had stirfried chicken with orange sauce, which we preferred over the chicken in my dish because his actually had some texture and dimension. The sauce on his chicken wasn’t thick, but we were happy to notice the unmistakable scent of fresh orange.
On a return visit with friends, we started with a veritable buffet of appetizers. We again ordered the chicken spring rolls and were again befuddled when only half of them had chicken inside. The Cabbage Bite Size Appetizers were a unique spin on a cabbage or lettuce wrap, with ground chicken and carrots wrapped in a cabbage leaf and flash fried. Dipped in sweet chili sauce, they were my favorite of the bunch. We rounded out Act One with the chicken satay — standard deep-fried chicken, skewered and served with a peanut dipping sauce.
On this visit, I found the sweet spot on the menu: the curries. Don’t envision a carb-heavy dish laden with a heavy-handed dose of Indian curry (Mom, I’m talking to you!); this is a totally different animal. The Bamboo Curry is a soup, fragrant with coconut milk and the ginger, basil and lime leaves I was searching for all along. The two on the spice scale perfectly complemented the rich, velvety coconut milk broth, and the bamboo gave extra body and texture to the dish. Into my bowl, I scooped jasmine rice to soak up the broth as I congratulated our friend who couldn’t stop remarking over how much he liked his stir-fried chicken with orange sauce. Homeboy had never had Thai food before, but his wife and I are determined to broaden his horizons.
For a last visit, during a commute from Ann Arbor to Okemos, I decided to phone in an order for Green Curry with Chicken. I made the call, placed my order, and ten minutes later received a call from the same waiter. Their shipment of Thai eggplant hadn’t arrived for the day, he told me, and he wanted to make sure that I still wanted the curry and wondered if I wanted him to bulk it up with other vegetables. I did want the curry, I did want the extra vegetables, and I was knocked out by the fact that he would call me to check. That little, innocuous touch of customer service has me thinking about a standing curry order for the one time that I make the aforementioned commute.
They offer a 5 percent discount if you pay with cash, which I fully support. I know how expensive the credit card processing fees are, which can be a killer for a small business, and I think this is a brilliant way to incentivize people to use cash without adding a credit card surcharge.
725 West Grand River Ave. #3, Williamston thainationbistro.com (517) 996-6092 Tues. - Sun. 12 - 9 p.m.