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,” because going there is a bit of an adventure, and “it cannot be found but by those who already know where it is” (or people who have a computer or a Maps app on their smartphones).
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. They share their decorative purpose with several potted plants, which give 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 covers the walls, and poster-size pictures of the same model in different traditional Thai costumes look down from nearly every single wall. Upon entering there is that unmistakable smoky but spicy smell that restaurants offering food from East Asian cultures usually have. 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 looks like a place that would cater to all types of diners; families with children, couples on casual dates, groups of friends together for a night out.
But, keeping with the Isla de Muerta theme, the place is 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 probably forty or fifty people, but only two tables are occupied at around six on one particular Friday evening; an older couple speaking quietly enough to each other that their conversation just sounds like vague mumbles sits on the opposite side of the room from a group of four girls. The girls are easily the largest source of noise, yet it is 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 seems a bit odd that one of this size doesn’t have more people eating there.
The hostess is polite but not overly-friendly, and is apparently the only member of the staff present besides the chef in the kitchen, as she also acts as the waitress. While prompt, she disappears for the most part after she brings 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 reappears for customers who come into the restaurant to order take-out, so it’s possible that this restaurant makes some of its money that way. What is slightly confusing is that as soon as the waitress notices that one diner at a table is done eating even though the others are not, the check soon follows, along with an offer of boxes for leftovers.
Now, either the chef at Thai Cuisine has some magical power that can speed up cooking times, or the food is made prior and simply kept warm until someone orders it. Here’s hoping it’s the former, not the latter. The waitress returns with food for the customers in what seems 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 more quickly than American food, but less than ten minutes between when the food is ordered and when it arrives is not even enough time for diners to get a conversation going.
The food itself, though each dish looks and smells slightly different, all has the same undertones. The peanut curry with chicken, which has a nice sneaky-spicy hot flavor that warms the mouth but doesn’t burn, has little to taste besides the spice, salt, onion, and whatever oil they used to cook it in. The chicken has no flavor whatsoever. A different peanut curry dish with tofu is slightly better than the first. Same warm-hot flavor, salt, onion, and oil, but the spice was nicely complemented by the tofu and vegetables in the dish: green and orange bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, and pea pods. Surprisingly, this dish came with rice instead of the noodles that appear in several other dishes.
Curry Pad Thai, an odd mix of Indian spices with Thai ingredients, is in all honesty the best of the bunch. The chicken doesn’t have the consistency of a dry sponge, the sauce is creamy and complemented by a bit of egg, the amount of spice is good and the noodles behave 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, are if not the worst of all the different dishes, somewhere near the bottom. They taste mostly of salt, spice, and oil; the noodles were chewy and dry in some places, and the whole thing was overloaded by onion. There are other vegetables as well—undercooked carrots and pea pods—but there is 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 is either absent or drowned out. As for dessert, diners need not worry about having to choose between something low-calorie and something delicious. There are no desserts on the menu.
The food at Thai Cuisine is filling and on the whole 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. 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.