There's a lot more to Thai food than stir-fried noodles with peanuts, and the quirky iThaiz has been cranking out some of the most interesting such food in Richmond.
Spring calls out for the lightness of Thai food: soft rice noodle dishes, spicy Thai basil, fragrant lemon grass, tangy tamarind and a flash of chilies.
Most diners who have seen a Thai menu are familiar with the Americanized classics: pad thai, pad see ew (stir fried veggies with wide rice noodles), and tom kha gai (chicken soup with coconut milk). But those classics tend to be buried in gloppy one-note sauces, or they're geared to Western palates and have lost the spicy-sweet-sour balance that's integral to Thai food.
Owner Petsuda "Pai" Netsan wants to change that. Her father, Charlie Netsan, is a seasoned chef who's cooked in kitchens in Thailand and Richmond. The father and daughter both cook at the restaurant, making the sauces and complex dishes from scratch.
The restaurant, which opened last year, is tucked away at the end of a small shopping plaza off Courthouse Road in Chesterfield County. The interior is a bit inexplicable, with a surfboard-accented Tiki bar that's not yet a bar. Pai Netsan is working on a liquor license. The "Bistro" wall sign, ceramics and basket of pepper grinders give off an Italian vibe. Then there are the shelves of merchandise from the movie "Minions" — diners can earn points and choose free gifts.
No minions for us. We're here for the food. We start with Thai tea and basil green milk tea. These traditional cream-based drinks are sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. The green milk tea tastes like vending-machine bubble gum. But in the absence of beer, we find that they pair surprisingly well with dishes featuring the spice of Thai chilies.
We start with a few Thai restaurant standbys for a baseline comparison. The summer rolls burst with crunchy dark green lettuce, not a flavorless mung bean sprout in sight. Although the shrimp are small, the rolls are bold, featuring whole leaves of licorice-tasting Thai basil. They come with a thick, dark, homemade peanut sauce.
Next we dive into crabcakes and curry puffs. The crabcakes I've tried at other Thai restaurants have been on the bland side, but these are a flavorful blend of pureed crab, shrimp and chicken wrapped in tofu skin and deep fried. The ground black pepper adds a punch.
The curry puffs are crispy and light, with a soft potato, carrot and onion interior spiced with mild yellow curry. The sauce is a balanced combo of sweet and sour, and isn't nearly as heavy as the typical bottled Thai chili sauce available in the grocery aisle.
With the nuba num tok salad, things really get interesting. This classic Thai beef salad usually is a variation of iceberg lettuce with some grilled beef and onion. But iThaiz piles on the beef, along with handfuls of fresh mint and lime juice, a cooling balance to the so-called medium heat level we order. The chef doesn't hold back on the funky fish sauce, and adds some crunch with a sprinkling of roasted ground rice bits. The Thai tea's milky sweetness, tempered by the heat, is a welcome match for the spicy beef.
Pai Netsan guides us through the dinner specials, and we settle on crispy duck with fried basil and a fried egg. Hands down, this is the best Thai dish I've ever tasted, and that includes everything from a privately catered, off-menu birthday dinner for a Thai friend.
The duck is slow-cooked and flash fried, not breaded, leaving the meat tender and juicy, while the fatty skin stays crispy — even in the chili sauce. Pulling the egg apart doesn't make the yolk drizzel from the slightly overcooked, deep-fried egg, but the crispy edges add a nice crunch. Whole basil leaves, fried to a delicate crispness, top the dish. The sauce brings the heat, but is balanced by sour and sweet notes.
For dessert, the ubiquitous mango-with-sticky-rice doesn't tempt us, and we opt for the banana spring rolls with homemade ice cream. The caramel ice cream is a bit strong for the rolls, which are crispy on the outside with mashed banana inside.
Our servers are friendly and patient with our questions, but service is a little uneven. A few takeout customers grow impatient with long waits.
We will return — hopefully next time with beer — to try more. The iThaiz website features gorgeous images of several dishes, including steamed buns, that aren't available the night we visit. I'm told there also are secret-menu items available for regulars. We're too full to even ask. S
1108 Courthouse Road