"We can safely say that it's as authentic as it gets."
That's what Kurt Stark told me in March after having added "& Thai Kitchen by Naya" onto his business' name.
Stark's wife, Naya, who moved here from Bangkok five years ago, had been sprinkling the four-year-old "House of Yakitori #5" menu with Thai items, to customers' delight. So Kurt decided to launch full Thai offerings to accompany the Japanese.
We recently dropped into their north end location to find out if the Starks have resisted "Americanized" Thai food. After all, they are sandwiched between a sports bar and a post office.
The first visit brought three lunch specials (chosen from 10 options, served with jasmine rice, salad and an appetizer soup, all $6.95) and a spicy beef salad ($8.95) to go. While we waited, a miniature gift shop near the cash register provided a few fun minutes of perusing Thai shoulder bags, tapestries and trinkets. A small kitchen and wait station bustled with the activity of the Starks' children half at work and half at play, charming enough if you like a true family feel.
Upon ordering, we had been asked to pick how spicy, on a scale of 0 to 5, we prefer our food. We opted for a 3 on the beef salad and Mussaman curry with chicken, 4 on the ginger chicken and 5 on the green curry (ordered with tofu, served mistakenly with chicken). One, or maybe all, of us was going to be lit up ...
Not so. The Mussaman, though the tastiest sauce (a red curry with potato, onion and cashews) bore no heat, while the green curry (coconut milk, basil, bell peppers, bamboo and green peas) tasted no hotter than the black mushroom-, carrot- and celery-enriched ginger chicken or lime-dominant salad. All the dishes were good, just not great. Call lunch the missionary position of Thai food.
Then, at dinner, along came the green papaya salad ($6.50), pad Thai ($8.50) and Evil Jungle ($7.95, best-named dish of the year), which put a holy hurt on my tongue. (O happy day!) This time, 4s and 5s delivered, making for a pleasant night but potentially problematic future ordering on account of inconsistency.
The papaya salad (a personal favorite with shrimp, cashews, chilis, tomatoes and carrot in lime and fish oil) proved plenty authentic, as did the peanut-rich pad Thai, reminiscent of true street fare in Bangkok. With kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, ample basil flavor and a touch of coconut in its red curry, the Jungle came not evil, but richly flavored and delicious.
Kurt arrived after sending us a complimentary (I think because we were new faces) mango sticky rice and a grilled-banana-leaf-wrapped rice cube sweetened with mashed taro (a tropical sweet potato). Both satisfying and subtly sweet, the latter smacked authentic as something not seen on any other local menu.
I must confess: At meal's end, my heart was still not swayed from B Street's Taste of Thai Spice, my enduring local, Thai go-to and the home of the most delicious coconut ice cream ever. But call Naya's eats a close second (at dinner). With fair prices, large portions and overall good food, the Thai Kitchen by Naya remains a wise north side destination.