With splashy murals, polished concrete floors, reclaimed wood and an abundance of handcrafted metal, Sabai has a message for you: This is not your mother’s Thai place.
Specifically, it’s not Mom’s Siam — or Mom’s Siam 2 — the restaurants of co-owner Joe Kiatsuranon’s family. This is the new generation’s version of a Thai joint — servers in de rigueur black wait on tables suspended by wrought-iron chains, with garage-style doors opening onto a stretch of Broad Street east of Scott’s Addition.
Sure, Sabai has all the Thai classics, but its real mission is to deliver a window onto the world of Thai street food. Ask for hot chili sauce and you get a small plastic bag of it expertly tied off, exactly as you might imagine would come from a Bangkok street vendor.
As for the standard Thai fare we’ve come to know and love, Sabai’s rendition hits all the marks. The ubiquitous green papaya salad, som tum ($6.50), is a mound of crunchy shredded unripe papaya whose salty-sour flavors, true to form, transcend the sum of its parts. It’s a dish that compels mouthful after mouthful until the plate lies bare, causing me to wonder despairingly if it would be uncouth to ask for another. It’s riddled with punchy hot chilies and comes with raw Thai eggplant, a novelty that is, perhaps, not for everyone.
A marinated pork belly appetizer, moo sam chan ($8.50), offers strips of crispy meat served atop greens and accompanied by a chili-vinegar dipping sauce. Its appeal comes chiefly from the heady flavors of fried pork belly rather than any special preparation, though the vinegary sauce pairs nicely with the meat.
A more interesting appetizer is pla goong ($8.50), described as a hot-and-sour shrimp salad with chili paste, lemon grass and mint. Tender shrimp gently cooked on skewers are bathed in a pungent ginger and garlic sauce along with peanuts, onions and scallions and greens.
Pad Thai ($12.50), gang massaman curry ($12.50) and red curry, gang dang ($12.50), are all solid renditions of the standards and easily will please those who frequent Thai restaurants.
But Sabai makes good on its promise to deliver nonstandard dishes as well. In the entree department, koa mun gai ($12.50) is a simple trio of gently poached chicken, a cup of homey broth and a mound of jasmine rice. This is a dish that could make you homesick for streets of Bangkok, if, in fact, Bangkok has been your home — and maybe even if it hasn’t.
Pineapple fried rice, koa pad sapparot ($14.50), feels like Thai comfort food with its salty jasmine rice studded with sweet chunks of fruit and presented with aplomb in a crowd-pleasing, carved-out half pineapple.
For the fish enthusiast, Sabai has a handful of intriguing, whole-fish options. Patrons select the preparation for any one of several varieties of fish based on availability. Recommended by our server, pla nung manow (market price) — a whole fried rockfish this night — comes neatly scored, skin-on. It’s smothered in sautéed peppers, onions, shiitake and button mushrooms, and smartly adorned with vibrant purple orchid blossoms. There really is no finer way to eat a fish than whole, and this dish confirms it.
Sabai has an arsenal of cocktails and a full complement of craft beers. Signature cocktails are built around ingredients such as pineapple foam, passion fruit purée and Thai basil. As we discovered, this is the kind of place where it’s safe to give bartenders free rein to concoct whatever they might fancy. For us, this results in a balanced pineapple drink spiked with lime and mint. It’s the kind of place whose bar alone can merit a visit.
Service at Sabai is certainly adequate, but the staff knows less about the food than it should — an oversight for a restaurant that dabbles in the less-familiar. On one visit a server misidentifies Thai eggplant as papaya. On another, we’re promised an answer to a basic question we pose about a dish, but the answer never comes. Other aspects of the service are a little uneven, too — a forgotten dish of rice and missing lime wedges. But that’s trivial, really, and doesn’t ultimately detract from the experience.
Whether you’re a Thai food novice or seasoned enthusiast, you’ll have plenty to try at Sabai. So grab a swinging bench, get a plastic baggie filled with sauce and inundate your senses with the intoxicating flavors of Southeast Asia. S
Mondays-Thursdays 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Fridays-Sundays 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
2727 W. Broad St.
Style is re-reviewing restaurants that former food critic Elliott Shaffner wrote during 2014-2015.