Tucked away into the corner of a strip mall off Drake Ave. in Kalamazoo, MI Thai Cuisine is a medium-size restaurant that has similar characteristics to the Isla de Muerta from “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.” Going there is a bit of an adventure, and “it cannot be found except by those who already know where it is” (or people who have a computer or a Maps app on their smartphones).
Keeping with the Isla de Muerta theme, the place was as eerily empty as a cave in an island of the dead containing a stone chest full of cursed Aztec gold. There is enough seating for forty or fifty people, but only two tables were occupied at around six on one particular Friday evening; an older couple speaking quietly enough to each other that their conversation just sounded like vague mumbles sitting on the opposite side of the room from a group of four girls. The girls were easily the largest source of noise, yet it was still quiet enough in the restaurant to hear the traditional flute music coming from the speakers in the ceiling with the volume turned down low. Of course restaurants are allowed to have off nights, but it seemed a bit odd that one of this size didn’t have more people eating there.
The restaurant has large windows, warm lighting, and an interesting mix of decorations. Waist-high golden statues of Chinese-style spirits and dragons stand guard on either side of the door, next to the fireplace in the center of the room, and at various other places around the restaurant. Nothing looks particularly unique to Thailand. The statues shared their decorative purpose with several potted plants, which gave relief to the mostly red, gold, white, and black color scheme.
Red silk-like wallpaper with a gold pattern on it that could either be an Indian goddess or Buddha serves as a backdrop for poster-size pictures of the same model in what are assumed to be different traditional Thai costumes that look down from nearly every single wall. Upon entering, one takes in the unmistakable smoky but spicy smells of paprika, pepper, and cumin. The tables are covered in white tablecloths with paper over them, presumably to make it easier to keep the cloth underneath clean. The chairs are comfortable and look well cared for; all in all this is a place that caters to all types of diners; families with children, couples on casual dates, groups of friends together for a night out.
In general, the food at Thai Cuisine is filling and fairly good, if a bit salty and not quite as flavorful as some might like. For the price—around $12 per person, not counting the tip—it’s decent food, but not the greatest.
The chef at Thai Cuisine either has some magical power that can speed up cooking times, or makes the food prior to the dinner hour and simply keeps it warm until someone orders it. Here’s hoping it’s the former, not the latter. The waitress returned with food for the customers in what seemed like too little time, even for the beginning of the dinner period when some things are made in advance in preparation for the dinner rush. Perhaps East-Asian cuisine like Thai, Chinese, or Vietnamese cooks quickly, but less than ten minutes between when the food was ordered and when it arrived was not even enough time for diners to get a conversation going.
The hostess was polite but not overly-friendly, and was apparently the only member of the staff present besides the chef in the kitchen, as she also acted as the waitress. While prompt, she disappeared for the most part after bringing diners their food, returning only once to briefly check on them and refill their drinks before disappearing back down whatever rabbit hole she came out of.
She also reappeared for customers who come into the restaurant to order take-out, so this restaurant probably makes a good portion of its money that way, as it has been open in Kalamazoo for several years. What was slightly confusing, however, was that as soon as the waitress noticed that one diner at a table was done eating even though the others were not, the check soon followed, along with an offer of boxes for leftovers.
Though each dish looked and smelled slightly different, all had the same undertones. The peanut curry with chicken, which had a nice sneaky-spicy hot flavor that warmed the mouth but didn’t burn, had little to taste besides the spice, salt, onion, and whatever oil they used to cook it in. The chicken had no flavor whatsoever. A different peanut curry dish with tofu was slightly better than the first. Same warm-hot flavor, salt, onion, and oil, but the spice was tempered by the tofu and vegetables in the dish: green and orange sweet bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, and pea pods. Surprisingly, this dish came with rice instead of the noodles that appeared in several other dishes.
Curry Pad Thai, an odd mix of Indian spices with Thai ingredients, was in all honesty the best of the bunch. The chicken didn’t have the consistency of a dry sponge, the sauce was creamy and complemented by a bit of egg, the amount of spice was good and the noodles behaved like noodles instead of sticking together in the chewy, slightly dry clumps that they turn into when left to sit out for too long. It had the same elements of oil, onion, and spice, but was less salty than the others, which let the other flavors come through better.
The drunken noodles, however, a traditionally Thai dish, were if not the worst of all the different dishes, somewhere near the bottom. They tasted mostly of salt, spice, and oil; the noodles were chewy and dry in some places, and the whole thing was overloaded by onion. There were other vegetables as well—undercooked carrots and pea pods—but there was double the amount of onion than the rest of the vegetables put together. The “special basil” mentioned on the menu as an integral part of the drunken noodles was either absent or drowned out. As for dessert, diners didn’t need to worry about having to choose between something low-calorie and something delicious. There were no desserts on the menu.
The restaurant has been open for several years, so they do not appear to be lacking for customers however, the slightly unnerving feel of eating in a mostly empty restaurant might lead diners to simply order take-out. And perhaps this is best, because the quality of the food is more along the lines of what one would expect to arrive in a white cardboard take-out box than on a white ceramic plate.