Review: Sawasdee’s bittersweet taste of Thai

June 8, 2017 GMT

Think of Thai food as jazz: a supercharged collaboration of players that blow sweet, funky, salty, sour, spicy and acidic. The soloists step in and step out, but the end product should be balanced, cohesive and whole.

At Sawasdee Thai Cuisine, I kept looking for the sharp interplay of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. What I found time after time was Kenny G and Spyro Gyra. Familiar, safe, sweet. A pop version of Thai, smoothed over for maximum airplay.

Aside from a few flashy pearls of presentation — curry in a pineapple, a clay hot pot with a live flame — this is the same Thai restaurant you’ll find in any city that can support more than tom yum gai and pad thai. Sawasdee hits the basics, but it retreats to safe territory and whispers sweet nothings to its thoroughly American customer base.

It’s tucked into the elbow of a pseudo-colonial strip mall, dressed in cool green trim, red silk and a tasteful menagerie of Thai artifacts. On three separate visits, terrible music fuzzed in and out like a recording of competitive gargling.

Sawasdee’s chicken satay is a Willy Wonka ride on the river of treacle that ran through dishes large and small, cold and hot, spicy and mild.

Fans of chicken-on-a-stick at Fiesta will recognize chicken satay here. The sporadic grill marks are offset by a yellow glaze like a Krispy Kreme doughnut, distractingly sweet, served with peanut sauce like pancake syrup and vegetables pickled in vinegar Kool-Aid.

When the hot and sour bouquet rose up from an overflowing bowl of tom yum gai, it became a resuscitative stew of white onions, green onions, mushrooms, quartered tomatoes and white-meat chicken. The sour acidity is a traditional palate cleanser, and there was a real need for something to burn through the saccharine overload of so many dishes to come.

I felt the first breath of fresh basil from Sawasdee’s green curry, but it was swamped all too soon by a curry base dominated by coconut milk and sweetness. No matter the meat and veggie mix — in this case boiled beef with green bell pepper, peas and a thatch of bamboo shoots — it was neither spicy nor clever enough to rise above the hot green smoothie at its base.

The body’s ever-ready conversion of starch to sugar makes noodles inherently sweet, which is why overloading a base dish like pad thai with sweetness is like drinking from a honey bear. I’d encourage taking the dish’s disparate elements — crushed peanuts, cabbage, scattered islands of fried egg — and mixing them thoroughly to temper the sugar.

In general, noodles are a game of textures. Pad thai delivered the slide and crunch of thin rice noodles and peanuts. Pad see ew went more for flat rice noodles to sink your teeth into, noodles that almost matched its cargo of thin-sliced pork for density and bounce. Add the fresh veggie crunch of carrots and broccoli, and pad see ew hit all the stir-fried marks for texture. But it’s caught in the Sawasdee’s oversweetened candy crush cycle.

On the upside, that cycle cranked a proper sweet-tooth salute with a dessert of sticky rice and mango that was like eating mango-coconut gummy bears, a deconstructed rice pudding in every fatted grain. The fresh fruit became the catalytic acid to break up the pudding party for a dessert that hit every finishing mark: sweetness, tartness, happiness.

The sweetness cycle took a break for a big clay pot of seafood stew called thom ka talay, with green-lipped mussels, shrimp, squid, loose-fleshed white fish and popcorn scallops in a broth bursting with coconut milk brought into sharp relief by lime. The carrots were cross-cut and feathered like salmon ribs, and their ubiquitous orange presence played up the bounty of seafood. And ginger’s aromatic perfume made this dish a sharp mediator in the sugar war.

Sawasdee’s Weeping Tiger salad was a low spot, though, hobbled by too much salt, dry and tough beef and by the absence of the roasted rice listed on the menu for textural counterweight. Sawasdee’s practice of regulating spice levels with only red pepper flakes seems lazy to me. Spice should come from within, not just from the number of pepper flakes per square inch.

The ground rice the Weeping Tiger so badly needed showed up in force in the pork larb salad, clinging like clusters of crunchy grapes to ground pork as bland as canned chicken. Salt as sharp as a paper cut canceled out the flavor bells activated by fish sauce.

Duck curry wins points for presentation, delivered in a pineapple cloven neatly in two. Pineapple was woven into the mild red curry, too, making it sweeter than it needed to be. Between the pineapple and green bell pepper, I got an incongruent Polynesian vibe, like a tiki curry. In the right circumstances, I’d chalk it up to whimsy in service of clever cooking, but there’s nothing clever about tough, overcooked duck.

Sawasdee shifts to a lower gear at lunch, with a weekday entree package deal from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. that includes a thin potato soup, shrimp chips, an anemic iceberg side salad, steamed rice and iced tea from a streamlined choice of 26 entrees (down from the 50 on the dinner menu), a good value at $8 to $10.

That lunch menu delivered Sawasdee’s strongest symbiotic pairing: bone-in, charcoal-roasted chicken with an off-menu papaya salad. Imagine pollos asados with its toasted skin and primordial smoke. Now imagine it cloaked in yellow curry. Now imagine that chicken with a crisp salad of julienned green papaya soaked in the sharp, funky twang of fish sauce. Yes, it’s sweet, but it’s a disciplined sweetness balanced with acid that sharpens the fat and salt of the chicken.

Balance is the key word here, a balance that Sawasdee too often sacrifices in favor of the immediate but fleeting gratification of sweetness. It’s a formula that clearly works for this busy place, but it’s not one I can recommend.


Twitter: @fedmanwalking