A good pad Thai rendition being the universal litmus test for a Thai joint, newly opened Thai Satay earns superior marks.
The usual ingredients are there — shrimp, chicken, scrambled egg, green onion, bean sprouts, a lime wedge and peanut crumbles on rice noodles — but something in the simple preparation ($6.95 lunch/$7.95 dinner) is expertly dialed in. A perfect texture reigns, with moist but not too-wet noodles never clumping, as in too-dry versions. A well-balanced sauce (in this case ordered a mild No. 1 out of four heat degrees offered) hits with a lovely marriage of fish sauce, paprika, oyster sauce and lime juice in a veggie stock — sweet, salty and tart notes all harmonizing into starchy delight.
Being that universal dish, it's almost patronizing to describe, as if giving one directions to a place he already knows. Consider this a new route, then, still past familiar landmarks. Indonesian-born and Thailand-trained chef/owner Gary Sanova hasn't reinvented anything here; rather, the 32-year-old appears mostly to have mastered traditional forms from the aforementioned countries as well as Malaysia.
Case in point: Sanova's Panang curry ($6.75/$8.50) left us stunned, sipping the last dregs of coconut milk enriched with galangal, chilies, fish sauce, lime leaf, garlic, shallots and honey after we'd killed the hunks of chicken, onion, bell peppers and yam under a shower of peanut-crumbles.
That legume manages to star across the menu, though Sanova places it in supporting roles as a sauce component or generous garnish. In the basil red curry scallops ($7.95/$10.50), ground peanut adds a nutty sweetness to a delicious spicy sauce (this time ordered No. 2) engulfing cauliflower, baby corn, carrot, pea and zucchini cuts. On a two-by-two appetizer sampler ($6.95 per person) with eggrolls, coconut shrimp, chicken satay, cheese wontons and samosas — all fine but none as standout as the entrées — a rich peanut sauce dip earns our attention more than the sweet-and-sour and Mae Ploy ramekins.
Leaving Thailand, an Indonesian Bah-Mee ($8.95) presents itself as a less-greasy lo mein-like dish, but with egg noodles in sweet soy with a building heat. Malaysian Curry Laksa Noodles Soup ($9.95), ordered a searing No. 3, sports an oily coconut milk broth, not a far cry from Thai's popular tom ka gai; but in place of chicken, shrimp leads with tofu and green onions over vermicelli noodles that I found more flavorful once marinated as leftovers.
A bright red and slightly fishy and sour Malaysian Sambal Shrimp ($7.95/$10.50) plate is a guaranteed hottie, composed of garlic- and shallot-seared vegetables tossed with shrimp paste and fresh chilies. A mango shrimp (same price) is both milder and expectedly sweeter in a fruit-amped citrus soy sauce. Lemongrass mussels ($7.95) come in an oyster and sweet soy sauce that's pleasant, though ours oddly lacked detectable lemongrass flavor.
At dessert, sticky rice with coconut custard ($3.95) is a surprising dud, its sweet syrup failing to penetrate the bland rice and save a gefilte fish-textured custard with a tinge of scrambled egg aftertaste. The coconut ice cream with fried banana ($4.95) is better with awesome, crunchy-skinned bananas heavily battered in tapioca, rice flour, coconut flakes and ground sesame seed, but the not-homemade ice cream disappointingly tastes more like vanilla with fake coconut flavor. (See Coconut Bliss' Naked Coconut in stores for perfection.)
Bittersweet endings, so to speak, to otherwise excellent visits to the simple strip-mall space. From sambol to sauces, Sanova is off to a strong start.