There’s a bright new Thai restaurant by the West End DART tracks, amid the welter of lunch-time workers seeking a spot for a casual bite. Half bottles of wine at the counter join boba tea and smoothie options on a screen that serves as a menu as well as a boisterous onslaught of color.
The “family” in Family Thais Asian Bistro is Tony Street (the nephew of legendary local restaurateur Gene) and his Thai-born wife-chef Jab, as well as the members of her family who came over from Thailand to help open the restaurant. The place is cute and cheerful, with paper parasols sweeping up to the ceiling and green-stained wood and other pops of color.
For years, Jab cooked at the now-closed Toy’s Café on Lemmon, from which much of the menu hails, a plain-spoken list with only a few “exotic” or showy items, like shrimp and pineapple fried rice.
It’s easy to love fried corn patties, big as your palm, tender and fluffy, held together with only a hint of rice flour. Green papaya salad laced with carrot and raw green beans is fresh and distinctive, with the requisite crunch, though it could be more animated by fish sauce’s funk. Spicy and sour tom yum has the aroma of galangal and lemongrass that wafts from each spoonful. Clear and tangy, with tell-tale drops of chile oil and cubes of extra-firm tofu, it’s a flavorful but oddly balanced arrangement, with big chunks of squash, button mushrooms, and knobby baby corn that’s awkward to slurp, though endearing. (The balance seems off, but not in the flavors.)
But some of the best things involve the fresh, hand-cut wide noodles. Pad ke mao, drunken noodles, shows off Jab’s skill with the wok. The slightly sweet, stir-fried dish whose noodles fold over each other is comfortingly caramelized, balanced between sweetness, garlic, and soy depth.
Surprisingly, nothing is noticeably spicy; flavors can oscillate between muted and vividly intense. Thai tea was watery. And drinks are from powders, though a reputable brand. Celery leaves in the minced chicken larb—a family recipe—lead away from the customary dish and more toward a chicken salad sandwich. Partly, unevenness in the early days and weeks after opening was due to the team’s adjustment to a ravenous lunch-rush and a fixed number of woks. The only true disappointment was crab noodles. With imitation crab, a paucity of shirred egg and wan tomato, it was flat and texturally peculiar. Better are the uses of portobello mushroom, which can substitute for meat in any dish. (Like Toy’s Café was, Family Thais is friendly to vegetarians.)
Ultimately, Family Thais is at its best when the flavors match the boisterous onslaught of color. With any luck, the family behind it will continue to bring more authentic flavors, eschewing the compromising that is sometimes the fate of a spot in a much-frequented, on-the-fly location.