Yes, it seems a little odd that a Thai restaurant would be named after a Polynesian cocktail invented in the United States. Victor Bergeron created the classic Mai Tai for the first Trader Vic's restaurant, in Oakland. The original 1944 recipe called for Jamaican rum, fresh lime juice, orange curaçao and a splash of almond-flavored orgeat, served over crushed ice. This bears little resemblance to the syrupy-sweet concoction of the same name served today in Asian restaurants and anywhere else with laminated menus of cocktail horrors.
When Thanyarat Pholcharoen was thinking of names for her six-week-old restaurant in Overland Park (she co-owns the venue with her brother, Kent, the owner of the Thai Spice restaurant in Lee's Summit), she wrote down a list of exotic and flowery-sounding possibilities.
"I showed my list to a friend of mine," Pholcharoen tells me, "and he handed it back to me and said that he didn't like any of them. He suggested Mai Thai, and I thought to myself, That's it! I think it works."
It's certainly easy to remember, as is Pholcharoen herself, a beautiful woman who wafts through her dining room with a dancer's grace and wears theatrical eye makeup. She doesn't care that the expression mai tai roa ae is Tahitian — it translates, roughly, as "out of this world." She spells it Mai Thai, anyway.
Embedded as it is in an undistinguished Overland Park strip center at 135th Street and Quivira, the place can only benefit from a memorable name. Pholcharoen says she and her brother put their place together on a modest budget, but it has style: fiery red walls, blond-wood flooring and booths, and a snug little bar where she blends her own version of a Mai Tai. (The Mai Thai Passion is made with Bacardi rum, blue curaçao, apricot brandy and a splash of lime juice.)
The menu is an interesting combination of traditional Thai favorites (fried rice dishes, phad Thai, curries) and Pholcharoen's own creations, such as Honeymoon Chicken (pieces of white meat stir-fried in a sweet chili sauce). It's not really an equitable union of flavors — sweetness dominates — but it's more soothing than most marriages.
Johnson County has a number of first-rate Thai restaurants, so a friend of mine asked if it was worth driving out to 135th Street — the end of the universe for a lot of midtowners — for a bowl of tom yum soup or pork stir-fried with fresh ginger, mushrooms and scallions. It was.
The food is excellent. Pholcharoen, who has a master's degree in French from Kansas State University, is an old-school restaurateur. She greets every customer in the dining room, often sending over a lagniappe — a complimentary plate of tiny, feather-light crab rangoon or taro ice cream, perhaps — to those patrons she recognizes from previous visits. She knows that remembering names and making diners feel special keep them constant.
I watched her fuss over one regular, a student at Johnson County Community College, with surprising warmth. "He eats here a lot," she told me later. "He always orders the same thing."
That's not unusual in the suburbs, where most customers also don't dare order their food on the spiciest reaches of the spectrum. (Mai Thai's range extends all the way to "Thai hot," which Pholcharoen insists is searingly spicy. I didn't break a sweat.) Heat is in the tongue of the beholder, I suppose, and I would have liked the vinegary hot-and-sour soup a lot more if it hadn't been served lukewarm. But the tom yum soup, fragrant with lemon grass and coriander, was steaming-hot — and kick-ass spicy. And the traditional panang curry — addictively spicy but soothingly creamy and sweet from the coconut milk — was so extraordinary that I practically licked the bowl clean.
"Hot is more exciting," Pholcharoen says, "don't you think?"
Well, I do, but not everyone is so adventurous. So Pholcharoen has added a few Polynesian-style options on her menu for the chili haters and the curry-phobic. There's pineapple fried rice or cashew chicken. Diners can order cashew tofu, too. In fact, vegetarians are well-served at Mai Thai. I thought the tofu-stuffed cold spring rolls and the crispy fried egg rolls — filled with chopped vegetables and translucent bean thread noodles — were out of this world. A perfectly fine meal can be made of these starters on the modestly priced sampler plate, which also includes little purses of fried rangoon.
Pholcharoen admits, right on the menu, that her rangoon is constructed from imitation crab. That's almost heretical by local restaurant standards, and it isn't the only lapse at Mai Thai. I was disappointed that the chopped potatoes in the otherwise divine massaman curry were undercooked.
My friend Bob, who is wary of anything too fiery, couldn't resist ordering a stir-fried fowl creation called Chicken Thunder. He thought it sounded tasty and dynamic. Pholcharoen has discovered that giving a dish an imaginative name adds allure for some patrons. Bob clearly is one such diner. But it turned out to be both, with a definite and very satisfying kick, thanks to an intoxicating soy-based marinade, fresh ginger and scallions.
A friend of mine swears that a Mai Thai dish called Jungle Curry — a coconut-milk-free concoction of green peppers, wild ginger and fresh basil — produces a Viagra-like reaction, at least in his system. I didn't ask for details, but that's probably a dish best ordered to go.
My trips to Mai Thai were with mixed company, and I was with three visual artists and an actor the evening I ordered the head-clearing basil fried rice. After practically scorching my tongue on that dish, I was desperate for something sweet and cold. Pholcharoen suggested taro ice cream, a creamy, violet-colored dessert with a vaguely coconut-like flavor and an arresting look. I preferred the slab of warm, milky-sweet sticky rice topped with slices of cool mango. It's like something a Bangkok grandmother might make.
My friend Marcus likes Thai iced coffee — which is made with condensed milk and is ridiculously sweet — instead of dessert. "It's a great combination of really sweet and very caffeinated," he says. It does indeed go straight to one's head without being intoxicating.
Mai Thai has a list of potent exotic cocktails for customers who need something a little more head-spinning than iced coffee. A couple of those and a bowl of Jungle Curry, and God only knows where the night might end up.