278 Smith St (between Sackett and DeGraw Sts)
Price Range: $15-20 Rating:3L's
On brisk winter evening, a man in a paper chef hat and a woman clutching a memo pad to her chest stand expectantly behind Em Thai’s glass storefront. A yellow banner advertising the restaurant’s BYOB policy hugs its façade like a strip of police tape, and the couple waves and smiles at passersby. They seem far too sweet and innocent to compete with the Smith Street restaurant scene on their own, so I quickly round up my neighborhood dining crew for a big meal.
The only embellishment to the softly lit, stark white room is a sculptural red decoration that creeps across the ceiling like crimson seaweed, lending the space a sense of style that its predecessor, Three Bow Thais, lacked — and the owners’ good taste trickles into the menu. In terms of value, the Fried Mixed Fritters ($8) rival any appetizer plate on the block; chicken and shrimp dumplings, fried tofu, taro parcels, crab cakes, and spicy fish cakes encircle bowls of sweet chili sauce and diced cucumber. The Curry Puffs ($4), curried chicken, potatoes, and onions stuffed into a Pillsbury-like pastry, may not be authentic Thai fare, but they make a great snack. The house specialties include an uncommon Shrimp and Avocado entrée ($12) — an entire avocado is sliced and artfully arranged on the bottom of a wide bowl, and topped with panang curry sauce and a generous serving of shrimp.
More traditional options include an oversized bowl of Pad Thai ($7 with chicken or tofu and vegetables; $8 with beef, mock duck, or shrimp), which prompts Pete to happily declare, “I keep eating but it won’t disappear!” Upon request, the Red Curry ($8) is made intensely spicy — but its jasmine rice accompaniment, molded into an elegant cylinder, is too small a portion to soak up the heat. A tall glass of sweet, creamy Thai Iced Tea ($2.50) helps ease the burn. Pad Ginger ($8), sautéed chicken with mushrooms, black fungus, onion, celery, scallions, baby corn, bell peppers, and soy beans, promises flavor without fire. “I don’t know about the black fungus creeping up in there,” Allison admits, “but I’d order this again.”
For dessert, we share the Banana Kaeg Tod ($5), a huge pile of deep-fried bananas with chocolate sauce, and marvel at the low price on the bill, presented by a waitress who has been beaming since we arrived.