If Thai Bistro looked any more unassuming, it would be invisible. The restaurant occupies a narrow storefront wedged between a tanning salon and a nail spa in a Wildwood shopping plaza. Its signage is minimal — its name and a small electronic OPEN sign — and when the shades in its front windows are pulled down against the late-afternoon sun, that twinkling OPEN can’t quite dispel the fear that Thai Bistro has closed for the day, or maybe for good.
Savvy diners know that even a location as deeply unhip as a suburban strip mall can yield a culinary gem. And while Thai Bistro isn’t flashy, its pedigree is sound. Owner Joe Nanthavong previously operated Land of Smile in Olivette, which built up a fervent fan base before it closed in 2012.
The interior reveals only slightly more character than the exterior. The single room, with tables in the front half and a bar in the back, bears a clean, modern design. A few pieces of decor do evoke Thailand, but the focus here is clearly on the food.
Thai Bistro’s menu includes the expected dishes — the curries, the noodles — but their flavors are no less vibrant for their familiarity. Kaffir lime leaves imbue panang curry ($13, with beef) with a bright, somewhat floral note that elevates it above a more standard-issue red curry. The kitchen determines the heat level for each dish, and both the panang and a green curry ($12, with chicken) brought enough heat to make a lasting, but not overwhelming, impression and also helped temper the sweetness of coconut milk.
(The quoted prices are from the dinner menu. Dishes on the lunch menu are generally a few dollars less, but not every dish is available at lunch.)
Even the most jaded aficionado of Thai cuisine might linger over a bowl of tom yum goong ($7), so powerfully flavored with chile, kaffir lime, lemongrass and galangal that the shrimp bobbing in the broth are nearly superfluous.
Of the well-known dishes that I tried, only pad kee mao, aka drunken noodles ($12, with chicken), disappointed. The flavor, dominated by roasted chiles, was very good, but the noodles were mushy, with many strands fused to one another. Larb gai ($10), the classic salad of ground chicken, herbs and red onion in a chili-lime sauce, was sharply flavored — refreshingly so, even with a not-insubstantial amount of chicken — but it lacked the ground, toasted rice that is an essential part of the dish.
Look outside your comfort zone, however, and Thai Bistro becomes even more appealing. Among the appetizers is a version of sai oua ($9), the traditional herb-spiked pork sausage of northern Thailand (and also Laos). With sticky rice, roasted peanuts and slivers of ginger, its riot of flavors and textures might overshadow your main course. The beef soup known as tom zapp ($6) — or tom saep, as it’s also transliterated — fuses the tartness of tom yum with an herbal quality reminiscent of pho. Though the menu doesn’t mark this soup with the drawing of one or two chile peppers to denote spiciness, this might have been the hottest dish I ate here.
A touch of chile heat, along with sesame oil and chopped green onion, sparked a lovely appetizer of thin-sliced and grilled Japanese eggplant ($8). So tasty was the sesame-chile sauce that I used it as a dipping sauce for another appetizer, the chive-vegetable pancake ($6). The “pancake” descriptor is a bit misleading, actually. It’s more like a flatbread — a denser, chewier naan. Its own dipping sauce is “mushroom-ginger,” per the menu, but tastes an awful lot like soy sauce.
Seafood is the common thread of the brief list of dinner specialties. Plump, butterfly-cut prawns star in the pineapple curry ($17). The dish is a dangerous one: The cubed fruit gushes molten juice when you bite into it. The chile heat of a panang-curry base balances out the pineapple’s sweetness.
Steamed cod ($17) brings a large, perfectly tender cut of the snow-white fish with bok choy and spindly enoki mushrooms in a rich soy-based broth with slivers of ginger and garlic. It’s a terrific dish and unlike anything else here, without chile heat or brightness or any of the other characteristics to which many of us (myself included) so often try to pigeonhole Thai cuisine.
It’s a welcome reminder that any dish, like any storefront, still retains the capacity for surprise.
What Thai Bistro, 2436 Taylor Road, Wildwood • Two stars out of four • More info 636-821-3006 • Menu Thai cuisine, including several seafood specialties • Hours Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday