Let's forgive Mai Thai its cringe-inducing name (not to mention that there's nary a Mai Tai to be found on premises) and talk about something different... like, the word "authentic." Bandied about by critics (I'm guilty) and eaters alike, it's used to either promote or dismiss restaurants of any given ethnic cuisine. Halfway through the fire of sweet and buttery yellow curry at Mai Thai, I was engulfed in the slow heat of realization: Describing an eatery as authentic is complete bullshit.
If you want authentic, buy a plane ticket. Even then, sitting down to yellow curry with a family in Thailand, the meal would be authentic only to that moment, unique to the time and place, affected by the sound of rain or the cook's mood or smells drifting through the air.
Screw authenticity. Think more about how food is connected to its origins. Mai Thai, for instance, has a definite essence of craft and care. It feels like comfort food in your belly, as if created by the universal goodness of grandmothers everywhere, but remains firmly grounded in the flavors of Thailand.
The gorgeous kai-yang, grilled marinated chicken, arrives at the table in big chunks, deeply brown and glazed. It's tender and juicy throughout with flavors of smoke and sweetness trailing delicate hints of pepper and citrus. Accompanied by sticky rice and two dipping sauces, the dish could easily feed two for its $10.95 price tag.
This is true for most of the dishes on Mai Thai's menu. They are substantial offerings and very affordable. And though they offer a yellow curry with meat for $8.95, they take incredible care with presentations. Each dish is beautiful: Carrots are carved in the shape of jagged-edged flowers or cabbage leaves are cut to look like feathery tongues of fire. On the table, colors and aromas stand in stark contrast to the dignified, minimalist dining room with its rich, muted color palate. The restaurant seems to have been specifically tuned to help patrons focus completely on a pleasurable meal. The meals are exceedingly easy to enjoy. Sure, the flavors aren't kickboxing across your tongue, but everything from appetizer to entrée tastes like the essence and weight of spices in every dish have been carefully considered.
One of my meals included Mai Thai spring rolls—crispy little cylinders rolled like bite-sized cigarillos, filled at one end with a burst of robust shrimp. I followed these with the flavorful tom kha soup. The broth, rich with coconut milk, has pucker-y tang from lemon grass and lime juice. The mushrooms and tomatoes remain firm and added chicken stays tender. An insistent heat mingles with creamy texture and savory bits of chicken and vegetables.
On another visit, the pad se ew was very well prepared. The wide noodles have a gentle smoky flavor and just a hint of peanut and lime. There's a good hit of pepper and the crisp broccoli adds a mellow greenness to the entire dish.
I can't say if all this is "authentic" Thai cuisine. But I can say that it tastes prepared with true reverence for the ingredients and the culture that combined them. After eating Mai Thai's lovely yellow curry, I don't plan on thinking in terms of authenticity again—unless to point out that I'm feeling authentically satisfied.