Your Tie, Their Tai, Mai Thai
Prior to visiting this restaurant I was not sure what I was in for. It could have been any of the following:
My Tie – a men’s accessory
Mai Tai – a tropical drink
Mai Thai – a great restaurant!
When my husband and I first ventured into Mai Thai, located in Benicia, we were met by “Mac”, the owner, and his wife “Karen”. Now Mac and Karen are not their real names. They really are Chirawut Assawapratart and Panaptaporn Imsunpang, but, like most Thais that relocate to the states, they adopted an easier “western” name to help us pronounce it more easily. As an aside, I have always wondered if I moved to Asia if I would want to adopt an “eastern” name to help them pronounce it more easily … Mai Thai is located along 1st Street, the main drag of Benicia, and there is always plenty of free street side parking. When I first walked into the restaurant, I was taken back by the modern look and feel of the place. Dark, streamlined wood and lantern lighting above each station. There are tables where you can eat traditionally, on the floor with your legs in a type of gully – they were very cool. If you are the parent of young children, it might even be a good place to contain them while you eat!
Now for the name. I was under the impression that Mai Thai was more a reference to ownership, such as “My Thai”. The true meaning is much different. The actual meaning of Mai Thai is a reference to a type of Thai silk fabric that is some of the finest and most exquisite silk in all the world. The way they weave the silk changes the color of the fabric by the way the light hits it, making it seem iridescent. It is said that Thai silk is first hand woven from individual strands to achieve a single, usable fiber. This process takes up to 40 hours just to get a half a kilogram of usable silk. This process of hand weaving produces a silk that can’t be produced by commercial machines.
There are, of course, lower quality machine-made artificial silks, but the “wedding ring test” will easily separate the high quality Thai Silk from the rest. The wedding ring test calls for taking a yard or two of the fabric and running it through a wedding ring. Authentic Thai silk is of a quality so delicate, flexible, smooth and strong that it will flow easily through such a small opening and it will do so without snagging. Low quality imitators will be caught by the ring when you try pulling it through the opening. The material will not be as delicate or strong and it will bunch up and snag, becoming impossible to pull through. Also interesting, real Thai silk, when burned, will smell like human hair and imitation silk will smell like plastic. In addition, if you remove the flame, true Thai silk will stop burning almost immediately as imitation will continue to burn until all the fabric is gone. The walls of the restaurant are adored with pictures of the silk-making process, and some of the finished product. Their menu includes facts about Thai silk as well.
So what does silk have to do with a restaurant? They choose the name Mai Thai because, as special as this fabric is, they wanted their restaurant and food to be of the same high quality. Just as the silk changes color based on the direction of the light, their daily food specials also do the same, offering their guests a different view of their native food. They want their guests to experience all the rich flavors of their homeland and they only want it to be of the highest quality.
Now for those of you that have never had Thai food, I will warn you now that it can be spicy. Thai food, like many Asian cuisines, revolves first around rice, then fish. Thais use a variety of very hot chili’s in their cooking as well as coconut and basil. They make quite a few curry dishes and they also have a wonderful peanut butter sauce that they use for grilled meat. Thais are also well know for their barbecue, which is sweet and spicy.
Mac and Karen did not want to be a westernized Thai restaurant, but instead wanted to bring the true flavors of Bangkok, Thailand right to their customers’ table. I have to tell you that it was a memorable journey.
We started our grand adventure in Thai cuisine by having fried fish cakes served with peanut sauce, along with cucumber salad with peanuts. The cakes were very springy and fresh. We wasted no time by then tasting the Chicken Satay (pronounced SAH-tey) served with a traditional peanut butter sauce served on a beautiful leaf-shaped plate. Now if you have never tried satay before it is a simple dish, just the meat and some spices, so the flavor really has a chance to shine through. The peanut butter sauce has a mild spice to it and trust me when I say that it is not what you would serve on your child’s next PB&J. It was delightful. Our final appetizer was an order of their spring rolls with a mild spicy sauce made with vinegar. These were something special and again, very fresh and crispy.
Next we moved on to three of their classic Thai plates which Mac selected for us. Pad Thai, which is a thin, translucent rice noodle. Pad Thai is a very traditional food with subtle flavors. A perfect mixture of spicy and sweet, but not overpowering. We had the Tofu Pad Thai and it was delicious. We also had the Mose salmon dish that was split with one side having a red curry and the other side a green curry. The dish was complemented with eggplant, bamboo and asparagus. Now this was a real treat. The salmon was cooked to perfection. Their curry just enhanced the natural flavors of the salmon. The green curry in particular, which had a little spice on the back end, was absolutely fantastic. Finally, we had a Cashew Chicken which was also very tasty. This dish is a bit on the sweet side and served with spicy sweet chili sauce. Don’t let the chili’s scare you – it is not very spicy. I would point out that many people would consider Cashew Chicken a Chinese dish – and they would be right. Thailand is heavily influenced by their not too distant neighbor to the north and many Thai people today trace their ancestry back to China.
Just when we thought we could eat no more, dessert came along. The perfect ending to our wonderful meal was fresh mango served with a sweet coconut sticky rice. If you are a fan of coconut, this is the dessert for you. The rice was slightly warm and the rich taste of coconut was the perfect accompaniment to the freshly sliced mango. A simple dessert but very delicious. My husband, a huge fan of the coconut, devoured it with glee.
Their menu has a wide variety of traditional items including Thai spring rolls, salads and soups for starters. Main courses include multiple Pad dishes from which to choose from including Pad Basil and a variety of curries: yellow, red and green. The day of our visit Mai Thai had daily specials that included spicy cat fish, black pepper corn cat fish, prawn fried rice, honey roast duck and barbecued chicken. As I said earlier, barbecue is a very traditional and common Thai offering and they do it quite well. If you have not had Thai barbecue, you should try. The barbecue has a sweet honey glaze on it with just the right amount of spice. They have a variety of rices too. Don’t miss the fried rice, pineapple fried rice or a prawn fried rice. Or if you like, they have white and brown rice which are both very tasty.
Mac and Karen are keeping everything about the restaurant very traditional to the Thai culture. If you are not familiar with Thai food and unclear about what you are ordering they have a picture book of all of their dishes so that you can determine if it is right for you. This will help you visualize what you are ordering and get ready for your excursion into the world of Thai cuisine.
There are plenty of beverages to enjoy with your meal as well, including the traditional Thai tea which is also known as Thai Ice Tea. This drink is made from strongly-brewed black tea. Other ingredients include orange blossom water, star anise and crushed tamarind seed. This tea is sweetened with sugar and condensed milk and served chilled.
Mai Thai also has a small bar area where you can enjoy an adult beverage, including some traditional Thai beers like Singha & Chang. Japanese Sapparo is also served along with some Mexican and domestic beers as well as some local wines. Mai Thai does not hold a full liquor license but this does not stop them from hosting a Happy Hour every day between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., with half-price appetizers and drink specials.
Mai Thai is open Monday – Saturday for lunch and dinner, closed on weekday afternoons in between meal times. It is also open Sundays for dinner only.
It was a true pleasure to sit down and enjoy not just the food, but the ambiance of Mai Thai, as well as discovering the history of the owner, his wife and their three children. Please take the time to visit the restaurant and let them know that you learned about them in Local Happenings.