As familiar as I am with Thai food – indeed, there are many such restaurants in the Valley – the shiny, eight-month-old Soi 4 in Scottsdale is a new adventure. Preconceptions are best left at the door; just dive in and explore the exciting, exceptionally good cuisine.
Anyone craving favorites like pad Thai will find an excellent version here, more authentically Asian than American-style sweet, the fresh rice noodles stir-fried with prawns, tofu, egg, bean sprouts and a sprinkle of nuts and chives ($12). Vegetables rolls ($7) make nice, crispy nibbles, as do the chicken satay ($6) and crab-fried rice ($11).
Besides the chicken, the chef also skewers tofu in fat squares that are fried to a creamy interior ($5.50), as well as chunks of meaty eggplant ($4.50) and slippery calamari ($7). The veggie rolls are dressed in a brisk, fresh lime vinaigrette, the shell thin and crisp and the insides warm and moist. The seafood in the fried rice is real, and for an extra $2.50, you can get a golden, fried egg on top, all piled in such a delicate mound decorated with whole sprigs of fresh herbs that you almost hate to disturb it with your chopsticks.
Then there are the original dishes, each one artistically plated to keep with the restaurant’s fine-dining ambience. Pad ped pla dook is one of the prettiest presentations of catfish I’ve ever seen, prepared in a captivating stir-fry of green beans, yellow squash, pink-orange ginger and rust-red curry ($14); besides the color on the simple white plate, the silkiness of the sauce, crunch of the veggies and smell of aromatic spices will woo you.
Many of the dishes come with tiny square cups of sauces, which aren’t mere suggestions – the concoctions are critical components. An appetizer of grilled skirt steak ($8.50) would be just OK for the thin, chewy seasoned strips, and better for the fluffy, nicely greasy curls of pan-fried Indian bread that you wrap up like feathery crêpes. But the green curry in the cup is a knockout – buttery, thick and complex – and when our server brought an additional quartet of hot sauces (mild to tongue-scalding), the dish truly captivated.
That Soi 4 is so polished shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Its owners, the Sirimongkolvit family, opened their first restaurant in northern California in the late 1960s and now own four critically recognized eateries there: Sweet Basil Thai in Berkeley, Basil Thai Restaurant and Bar plus Basil Canteen in San Francisco, and Soi 4 Bangkok Eatery in Oakland. Todd Sirimongkolvit is executive chef for the entire restaurant collection, and his sister, Dannie Lum, runs the local kitchen alongside her husband and the restaurant’s managing partner, Kin Lum.
Set in the high-end Shops at Gainey Village, the restaurant is refreshingly non-stereotypical Thai. The contemporary space can get a little loud, with tech music thumping, but despite the bar that spans nearly the length of the entry wall, the mood never ventures into nightclubby. Credit the warm, polished wood tables and wall accents, the long banquette slinking along a window wall like a bright, pillow-strewn snake, and a second-story loft dining room accessed by a slat-wood staircase underlit so it glows like expensive teak.
Sirimongkolvit says “soi” is a Thai word for the side streets or alleyways that “form the essential lifeline that makes up the fabric of the Bangkok city.” Like the diversity of those streets, his food salutes Asian tradition but with ample modern sensibility and exciting contrast from bite to bite. That means more adventurous dishes than are found on most other Valley Thai menus, and small, shareable plates instead of family-style platters.
Not sure where to start? Try the miang kum ($7), as vivid an appetizer as found in any of the Valley’s best restaurants. Pungent, fresh-cut mustard leaves line a long, canoe-like plate, topped with scoops of chopped prawns mixed with roasted coconut, lime, citrusy pomelo, ginger, nuts, hot chile and sweet palm. There’s a lot going on, but it meshes magically. You roll it all in a leaf, drizzle it in a caramel-y sauce, and swoon.
Another good starter is the Thai spiced corn cakes ($7), a trio of crisp-edged fritter-like patties that are a bit bland until you pile on the cucumber-pineapple-red onion relish (splash on some hot sauce for real ka-pow). Combined with a chilled salad of green papaya spooned over string beans, prawns, cherry tomatoes and crunchy nuts tossed in sweet garlic lime dressing ($12), it makes an excellent light summer meal.
Pork shoulder is typically a peasant dish, but with chef Lum’s touch it’s graceful, braised in coconut milk, doused in tangy red curry with chunks of kabocha squash reminiscent of pumpkin, and decorated with fragrant Thai basil ($13). The chef also might make you rethink humble noodles with her approach to pan-fried wide rice noodles, which get tumbled in a succulent mélange of pork, glossy-bitter Chinese broccoli and egg smothered in richly seasoned Thai black bean sauce ($11).
Duck gets a polished presentation, too. The ruby, juicy meat is pan-seared with tender baby spinach and ladled in a tongue-tingling red curry kissed with a sweet (but not sugary) touch of pineapple ($16).
Quick tip: Take heed of the stars next to dishes; they designate spice level and are serious. In fact, the chef refused to ratchet-down the stir-fry pork and asparagus ($13), since, as my server noted, for the authentic Thai experience, a little pain adds to the pleasure.
If things get too hot, turn to the extensive Thai-themed cocktail list, which is the perfect antidote to spice-scorched taste buds. Soothe yourself with a Thaimosa, made of pinot noir brut, mango nectar and peach Schnapps ($9), or a tart-sweet Silky Sky, which splashes together lychee liqueur, Skyy vodka and ruby red grapefruit juice ($8).
Dessert highlights include fried bananas ($5.50) and mango with coconut sticky rice ($6). The deep-fried mango cooled with vanilla ice cream ($6.50), however, sums up the Soi 4 experience nicely: It’s intriguing, layered in flavor and refreshingly out of the ordinary.
Address: 8787 N. Scottsdale Road, Ste. 104, Scottsdale
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
Highlights: Red curry pork shoulder with kabocha squash ($13); pan-fried wide rice noodles with pork, Chinese broccoli, egg and Thai black bean sauce ($11); miang kum ($7); pan-seared duck ($16); deep-fried mango with vanilla ice cream ($6.50)