Thai’d for the very first time? Cat Bunnag’s superb midtown bistro will make even the most jaded panang lover feel like a culinary virgin.
Most of us remember our important firsts: first sweetheart, first kiss, first roll in the hay. As a hopeless food nerd, I also remember my first Thai food experience, which took place in Hollywood in 1982, where I fell hard for that garlicky, spicy, complicated cuisine in a red-hot minute. Two years later, I moved back to Phoenix and found, to my disappointment, that the Thai restaurants that had sprung up in my absence were a bit more Americanized and a bit less exciting. I still loved Thai food, mind you, but there was nothing to rival that first thrilling mouth-party moment.
In recent months, however, my early ardor has been restored by Glai Baan, a small, charming Thai restaurant in central Phoenix, where chef-owner Pornsupak “Cat” Bunnag specializes in Thai street food and the specialties of her native Isan, a province in Northeastern Thailand. Though not particularly spicy, her soulful dishes seem brighter, fresher and more authentic than just about any Thai food in town. I think I’m in love.
Peek gai tod – the Thai take on fried chicken – is a good, snack-y place to begin, so picture this: big, meaty wings, marinated in a garlicky blend of oyster, soy and fish sauces, then dredged in rice flour and deep-fried to a surprisingly light, crispy finish. Tossed with scallions and garlic chips and served with jaew (a smoky dipping sauce), they pair perfectly with Japan’s aromatic Hitachino Nest red rice ale. Larb, a Laotian minced meat salad, meant to be wrapped in crunchy cabbage wedges and eaten by hand, is also a nice app and tastes very typically Thai, offering up pungent bursts of lime, chile and salt in every bite.
As you might imagine, rice dishes rule here. My buddy and I are crazy for mackerel fried rice, a rustic, garlicky bowl of goodness jazzed up with little more than cooked egg, green onion and cubes of moist, smoked mackerel. Sensational. Meanwhile, ka na moo grob hits the comfort-food sweet spot as a stir-fry of Chinese broccoli and skillfully caramelized pork belly, made memorable by twice-cooked son-in-law eggs – medium-boiled until the golden centers are still soft and oozy, then fried for a final wispy flourish.
Noodles, the quintessential Thai street food, are well-represented, too. Bunnag’s pad Thai is deeper and less effete than most versions of the stir-fry classic, but it’s the kanom jeeb – dainty steamed dumplings dripping in their own pork-y juices – that completely changed my life. Served with a ginger-soy dipping sauce that provides another layer of umami richness, they’re a swoon-worthy treat I’d eat anywhere, anytime.
A nightly special of crispy red snapper, served whole and strewn with sweet-sour organic mango salad is excellent, too, but I’m too full to appreciate it until the following day, when I wolf down the leftovers for lunch. On another visit, our server suggests a typical Thai meal – soy-marinated Pattaya grilled chicken (named for Thailand’s famous beach) with sticky rice and a green papaya salad called som tum. Served with naturally sweet sticky rice and a tangy, crunchy salad of unripe papaya, tomato, green onion, peanut and a disk of puffy fried pork belly (think chicharrón), the ultra-moist chicken makes for the perfect meal – uncomplicated and supremely satisfying.
My guess is Bunnag’s food isn’t as incendiary or offal-centric as the street food in Thailand, but hey, we’re not in Thailand. While I’m all for authenticity, sometimes I’m willing to settle for just plain delicious.
Cuisine: Thai street food
Contact: 2333 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix, 602-595-5881
Hours: Tu-Th 5-11 p.m., F-Sa 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m.
Highlights: Peek gai tod chicken wings ($8); larb moo minced meat salad ($8); kanom jeeb pork dumplings ($8); ka na moo grob broccoli and pork belly stir-fry ($14); pad Thai ($13)
50 Best AZ Restaurants
We ate. Then we drove. Then we ate some more. ...
2015 Best New Restaurants
Our annual highlight reel of metro Phoenix’s most damnably delicious new restaurants. ...
Where to Eat 2017
Food trends, upcoming restaurants, rising chefs – the gang's all here! Plus: “Destination Dishes” throughout Arizona worth the drive. ...
75 Best Dishes in the Valley
The most iconic. The most creative. The best specimen of a beloved breed. ...
2016 Best New Restaurants
Clasp your cufflinks and polish your pearls – PHOENIX magazine's black-tie salute to the best in Valley dining is back for 2016. Warning: The contents of this feature may result in food comas and uncontrollable grazing. ...