MAI TAI 2
Where: 2279 S. 67th St.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
About: Mai Thai owner Preeda Joynoosaeng is a seasoned veteran in the food business. He opened the first Mai Thai location in 2007 at 146th Street and West Center Road. Before that, he ran an Asian market, which he sold in 2007. He got back into the Asian market business a few years ago when he signed on to open a new Asian Market at 76th and Dodge Streets. The shop carries lots of obscure European items popular with expatriates, a great selection of fresh seafood and produce and lots of kitchen gadgets and dry goods. He opened Mai Thai 2, in Aksarben Village, in April.
A Mai Thai at Mai Thai 2 is just $5, and the restaurant also has a list of other tropical drinks, beer and wine. The restaurant's large mural holds special meaning to Joynoosaeng, who commissioned the work. The five elephants are symbolic of his family; he has a wife and three children.
I've been on a six-year search for Thai food that's as good as the everyday meals I bought for less than $5 when I lived outside Bangkok.
Omahans would tell me to try this place or that around town. I always liked the food, but it was never as good as the real stuff.
So I was blown away when I visited Mai Thai 2 in Aksarben Village. The restaurant boasts the best of American and Thai: a chic pristine interior and friendly, English-fluent staff melded with authentic cuisine all the way from the tom yum goong to the Thai iced tea.
Owner Preeda Joynoosaeng told me in an interview after my visits that his aim with Mai Thai 2 is to make it the best Thai restaurant in Omaha.
I am a Thai food junkie. And in my book, Joynoosaeng has very nearly succeeded.
The interior of Mai Thai 2 is open, with minimalist black and white dťcor. The buzz from a weekday crowd reminded me of an upscale New York cafeteria busy with professionals.
On a lunch visit, the friendly, unpretentious host warmly greeted us, then made excellent menu suggestions.
He told us to try the mango crab rangoon. The crunchy appetizer came in pyramid-shaped pockets filled with cream cheese, crab pieces and fresh squares of mango — a delightful pairing.
To stave off the August heat, we ordered Thai iced tea, which came drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. It was too sweet for my taste but 100 percent authentic — it's too sweet for me in Thailand, too.
For my entree, I went straight for the curry, because it's the dish I measure all Thai food against.
Mai Thai doesn't have my favorite green curry on the menu. Joysoonaeng said he often had to throw away the green curry at the other Mai Thai location, at 146th Street and West Center Road, because there would be days that no one would order it — apparently not everyone shares my affinity.
Instead he serves massaman curry, a yellow-hued curry from southern Thailand that is fragrant with warm spices and heated with a few chili peppers. He also sells other varieties of yellow curry, red curry, a mild panang curry, one studded with pineapple and a red curry with duck, cranberry and pineapple.
I settled on red curry, a still spicy but less sweet variation from the green. Curries have everything quintessentially Thai: The heat from tiny hot peppers that curl at the end to form the shape of a “J”; coconut milk to temper the heat; Asian spices; and aromatic roots such as lemongrass, galangal — comparable to ginger — and ginger itself.
There's a balance at play in Thai food that elevates it, making it arguably the most flavorful food in the world. Diners will find sweet, spicy, sour and savory flavors, and it's curry that really packs a punch.
Mai Thai's version, at $11, comes with bamboo shoots, sliced bell peppers, basil and beef or chicken. The bell peppers were slightly undercooked, but the beef was incredibly tender; it was exactly what I had been searching for: a slow and complex burning spice rounded out with faintly sweet coconut.
My friend ordered the drunken noodles, also $11, a traditional noodle dish that's similar to Pad Thai (also on the menu). It comes with rice noodles smothered in a sweet and savory brown sauce and topped with fried egg, bell peppers, mushrooms and a choice of chicken or beef. She ordered a spicy level of two (on a scale of one to five), and it was hot enough to burn a little but not to mask the other flavors.
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For dinner, I ordered spring rolls and chicken satay appetizers. Both came with a thick peanut sauce for dipping. The spring rolls ($5.50) were completely stuffed with crisp-fresh vegetables and glass noodles and wrapped in rice paper. The vegetables were great, but I wanted a marinade or splash of vinegar to brighten the flavors.
Joynoosaeng says he likes to keep the vegetable spring rolls simple and fresh but seasons the beef spring roll with a marinade.
The satay ($8.50) came traditionally skewered and tenderized. The yellow chicken had great flavor, probably from turmeric or curry powder in the marinade, and was quite tender.
Fittingly, Mai Thai serves the pink Mai Thai cocktail that's typically made with rum, orange curacao and lime or orange juice and usually garnished with an umbrella. This one fit the bill, although it was a bit sweet for my taste. I also ordered a Thaiger cocktail, which turned out to be more my speed. It had a great zip of ginger from a ginger-flavored vodka plus grapefruit, orange and lime juice to moderate its sweetness.
My friend ordered Chicken in the Mud, a stir-fried entree served with rice. It came with fried egg, bell peppers, mushroom and carrot and was seasoned with ginger and aromatics and slathered in a creamy and mild curry-like sauce. I kept sneaking my spoon over to her plate to lap up some more.
The entree is Joynoosaeng's own recipe featuring techniques and ingredients common in Thai cooking. He says he doesn't Americanize any of his dishes.
Though the prices at Mai Thai 2 are higher than what you'll find in Bangkok, they're mostly reasonable.
In Bangkok, a bowl of tom kha gai, coconut chicken soup, is 150 bhat — $4.80. At Mai Thai, it's $7.50.
But even some of the more expensive dishes are worth the price.
The real stunner of my second visit was the tom yum goong, a traditional lemongrass-flavored soup with shrimp. At $18 a pop, I found the price a bit steep, though the menu boasted that it was the best tom yum in the world.
It was the best I've eaten, and I'm no novice.
The broth had intense body and was loaded with aromatics, including ginger root, stalks of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. The rim of the bowl was speckled with red oil from hot chili peppers that colored the broth a light orange.
One slurp cleared my throat with an acidic sharpness. Jumbo shrimp popped under pressure from my teeth, while glass noodles slid through my chopsticks and back into the bowl, littered with vegetables. The serving was so large I couldn't finish it.
I asked Joynoosaeng why the soup is so pricey. He said it's because each bowl is made to order.
“I have traveled around the world, to Tokyo and even in Bangkok,” Joynoosaeng said. “People say this tom yum is the best. People pay for the flavor.”
Joynoosaeng is so devoted to this soup that his other location doesn't serve it because the chef there can't make it quite like he can.
Trust me: Few chefs could.
In my quest for superior Thai food close to home, I have eaten lots of watered-down imitations.
Mai Thai 2 gave me the vegetable-laden, curry packed, spicily awakening cuisine I've been searching for.
Joynoosaeng demonstrates a skill with cooking and a deep understanding of Thai cuisine that is a gift to the diner.
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