Thai’d for the very first time? Cat Bunnag’s superb midtown bistro will make even the most jaded panang lover feel like a culinary virgin.
Most of us remember our important firsts: first sweetheart, first kiss, first roll in the hay. As a hopeless food nerd, I also remember my first Thai food experience, which took place in Hollywood in 1982, where I fell hard for that garlicky, spicy, complicated cuisine in a red-hot minute. Two years later, I moved back to Phoenix and found, to my disappointment, that the Thai restaurants that had sprung up in my absence were a bit more Americanized and a bit less exciting. I still loved Thai food, mind you, but there was nothing to rival that first thrilling mouth-party moment.
In recent months, however, my early ardor has been restored by Glai Baan, a small, charming Thai restaurant in central Phoenix, where chef-owner Pornsupak “Cat” Bunnag specializes in Thai street food and the specialties of her native Isan, a province in Northeastern Thailand. Though not particularly spicy, her soulful dishes seem brighter, fresher and more authentic than just about any Thai food in town. I think I’m in love.
Peek gai tod – the Thai take on fried chicken – is a good, snack-y place to begin, so picture this: big, meaty wings, marinated in a garlicky blend of oyster, soy and fish sauces, then dredged in rice flour and deep-fried to a surprisingly light, crispy finish. Tossed with scallions and garlic chips and served with jaew (a smoky dipping sauce), they pair perfectly with Japan’s aromatic Hitachino Nest red rice ale. Larb, a Laotian minced meat salad, meant to be wrapped in crunchy cabbage wedges and eaten by hand, is also a nice app and tastes very typically Thai, offering up pungent bursts of lime, chile and salt in every bite.
As you might imagine, rice dishes rule here. My buddy and I are crazy for mackerel fried rice, a rustic, garlicky bowl of goodness jazzed up with little more than cooked egg, green onion and cubes of moist, smoked mackerel. Sensational. Meanwhile, ka na moo grob hits the comfort-food sweet spot as a stir-fry of Chinese broccoli and skillfully caramelized pork belly, made memorable by twice-cooked son-in-law eggs – medium-boiled until the golden centers are still soft and oozy, then fried for a final wispy flourish.
Noodles, the quintessential Thai street food, are well-represented, too. Bunnag’s pad Thai is deeper and less effete than most versions of the stir-fry classic, but it’s the kanom jeeb – dainty steamed dumplings dripping in their own pork-y juices – that completely changed my life. Served with a ginger-soy dipping sauce that provides another layer of umami richness, they’re a swoon-worthy treat I’d eat anywhere, anytime.
A nightly special of crispy red snapper, served whole and strewn with sweet-sour organic mango salad is excellent, too, but I’m too full to appreciate it until the following day, when I wolf down the leftovers for lunch. On another visit, our server suggests a typical Thai meal – soy-marinated Pattaya grilled chicken (named for Thailand’s famous beach) with sticky rice and a green papaya salad called som tum. Served with naturally sweet sticky rice and a tangy, crunchy salad of unripe papaya, tomato, green onion, peanut and a disk of puffy fried pork belly (think chicharrón), the ultra-moist chicken makes for the perfect meal – uncomplicated and supremely satisfying.
My guess is Bunnag’s food isn’t as incendiary or offal-centric as the street food in Thailand, but hey, we’re not in Thailand. While I’m all for authenticity, sometimes I’m willing to settle for just plain delicious.
Cuisine: Thai street food
Contact: 2333 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix, 602-595-5881
Hours: Tu-Th 5-11 p.m., F-Sa 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m.
Highlights: Peek gai tod chicken wings ($8); larb moo minced meat salad ($8); kanom jeeb pork dumplings ($8); ka na moo grob broccoli and pork belly stir-fry ($14); pad Thai ($13)