Tasty Thai in short order
Nakhon Thai Express
352 Preston St. 613-321-1101, nakhonthaiexpress.com
Open: Monday to Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Closed Sundays
Dishes: $9.95 to $12.95
Access: Steps at the front door
It was the first night of Italian Week, and we were moving slowly on foot on Preston Street, against the flow of pedestrians, past Ferraris, a busker and the tempting wood-oven-baked pizza concession, because, in typically contrary fashion, we had a hankering for Thai food.
When we arrived at Nakhon Thai Express, a casual but tidy enterprise that is as much geared to takeout as to dining in, it was completely devoid of customers. Staff were standing outside on its steps, watching the street’s festivities.
But that lack of business shouldn’t be construed as a knock against Nakhon’s food.
The dishes we had lived up to not only the “Express” in the restaurant’s name, but also made its slogan, “Real Taste, Real Thai!” ring true.
Yes, the menu’s specified heat levels for some dishes did suggest that in the eyes of head chef Suphattra (Tan) Masong, Canadians like their Thai food mild. However, every dish adorned with a single chili can be made two- or three-chili spicy if that’s your pleasure.
More importantly, the curries, stir-fries and salads we sampled usually tasted of complex spice blends and sauces, with more than just sweet and salty notes going for them. And yet, all but a few dishes are $9.95 or less.
(Some proof beyond the food that the modest, three-year-old restaurant is doing something right: It spun off a second, more upscale location on Sanders Street in Kemptville a year ago, and will open another restaurant in Brockville later this year, says Aaron Orlicky, who co-owns the business with Masong, his wife. The food at all the locations, he says, is consistent, based on the recipes of Masong, who worked at several Ottawa Thai restaurants before Nakhon opened on Preston.)
We place our order with a friendly server and soon hear a cook in action behind the wok. A few minutes later, piping-hot dishes, most adorned with carrots carved to resemble flowers and some slaw, arrive in quick succession. We dive into tom kha soup, well-studded with tender chicken. The larb gai (minced chicken salad) is meaty and bracing, the savoury chicken offset by the bite of onions, lime dressing and flecks of chili. A quibble: the dish’s dusting of toasted rice could have been more finely ground. Mango salad, enlivened with more lime dressing and topped with two just-cooked shrimp, provides a sweet counterpoint.
In a stir-fry of eggplant, onion and green peppers, the vegetables appeal texturally and have been boosted with chili and basil. A plate of broccoli stir-fried with crispy salted pork is less impressive, just OK.
Tempura shrimp prompt a double-take, as they’re breaded rather than tempura’d, and the specimens are small, if tender and tasty.
All curries, stir-fries and noodle dishes can be ordered with chicken, beer, pork or tofu. The geang garee, a yellow coconut curry, is tasty and meaty, if just a touch too bitter.
While we skip Nakhon’s desserts (tapioca pudding, mango or coconut ice cream, a banana fritter) in favour of some very good gelato a few doors down, we feel well-fed and leave with plenty of leftovers.
A few weeks later, a lunch-hour visit finds the place packed with a dozen or so eat-in and takeout customers. Tables near the cramped, enclosed kitchen hear soft-rock from the radio and the sound of food dancing in woks.
Because of the brisk business, the pad bai graprow (lunch meal special No. 3, a stir-fry of chili and basil with chicken, vegetables and rice) takes 15 minutes to arrive but is worth the wait. Toothsome chicken, just-cooked vegetables, the salty, umami-laced sauce and an extra spike of chilis work together. Properly cooked rice sops up the flavours nicely.
I think that taking some pad thai home for dinner would be a good idea. The man at the cash counters knowingly but kindly says that I would be better off with a curry, since the noodles won’t taste as good after a few hours in the fridge.
Good call. That night, the geang panaeng, a red curry with red peppers and crushed peanuts, is rich, rounded and satisfying — yet another reason to have strong confidence in this cheap and cheerful place.