Whenever four saffron-robed monks follow you into a place, something unusual is about to happen. This is a general rule. At Sawasdee Thai Cuisine on Blanco Road, I took their presence to mean that the restaurant has earned its bona fides, and to put my wallet in my front pocket. Add to that a giant banner proclaiming it the best Thai food in San Antonio, and everything seemed very impressive.
The service is, in fact, impressive: fast, efficient, and polite without being solicitous. The décor is what you might expect: several idols and tapestries (and the monks were a nice touch), and those vinyl chairs that seem to be begging for a Kiwanis group to descend upon them.
The menu itself is a mixed offering. As the monks may agree, Sawasdee serves fine vegetarian fare. Their Tom Kah Puk (coconut milk soup) is excellent, with some nice vegetables thrown in that I didn’t expect (carrots? Cool). Their Pad Thai is seasoned perfectly (taste it before asking for soy sauce — you’ll find you don’t need it) with just the right amount of tamarind in the noodle base, and they didn’t use the peanuts to drown a lazy sauce. Their yellow curry could be served on every street corner in Bangkok and it still wouldn’t be enough for me, and their Pad King with ginger is inventive and fresh.
So they know noodles, they know soups, and they know rice and spices.
The meats, however, were a disappointment: All were simply overcooked and bland. The chicken in the yellow curry was stringy and toughened by the broth (most chefs choose to add it at the last minute to avoid that outcome); the same in the Pad King — entirely too hard. And the shrimp in the Pad Thai felt utterly unseasoned; I’d be very surprised if it was marinated beforehand. They avoided that rubbery shrimp that you can find so easily in chain restaurants, but good texture is too big a concession to make in exchange for no taste.
If you’re a vegetarian like the monks, Sawasdee is a strong recommend; if tofu isn’t your style and you need meat in your lunch, it’s hard to explain the systemic overcooking and blandness. Chicken is actually much harder to get right than most restaurant patrons admit — the difference between undercooked and overcooked is about 30 seconds or a heat lamp above an order that just came up. And shrimp takes a serious marinade to keep from tasting like a bland piece of, well, shrimp. But in this case it seemed like they just stopped trying to get it right, which is jarring in comparison to how beautifully they execute their other work.
I had been jonesing for Kraton Tong, which is not on the menu — but if they’re like most Thai places, the cooks make it for themselves. Next time I’ll just ask for it.
Finally, a note about the level of spice. In Texas, we’re often proud of how much heat we can take in our chili and Mexican food. But at Sawasdee, respect the pepper. Don’t be a hero; stick with medium. Even if you can take the punishment, it just keeps you from tasting the subtleties of the sauces that they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Naturally, I was kidding about putting my wallet in my front pocket. But as the monks prayed together before starting their meal, and I was in the middle of mine, I began wishing they were praying for tender chicken. It couldn’t hurt. •
Incredible vegetarian Thai experience; meat-eaters may be disappointed.
Pad Thai; Tom Kah Puk soup
11am-3pm and 5pm-10pm
Tue-Fri, Noon-10pm Sat-Sun
Lunch Menu: $6.95-$8.95
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