Marnee Thai offers reliably delicious Thai dishes
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Holding down a lonely street side corner of the Ashley Mews tower, Marnee Thai seems psychologically far from the core of downtown Ann Arbor, even though it's just across the street from Main Street's busiest block. The jewel-tone interior is rich in turmeric yellows and muted curry reds and warm from the glow of boxy tangerine light fixtures overhead. A line of comfortable booths fronts a wall of windows on one side (although the view looks out on a gas station), and a tiny bar is tucked into the back corner.
Although I often crave Thai food, the heyday of many Thai restaurants in town seems to have faded — at least in my mind, if not in reality. But I still think that a really superior Pad Thai, Thailand's most familiar noodle dish in America, is something a lot of people want. Going to Marnee Thai reminded me of that delicious balance of sensory forces that can make Thai food so compelling.
Taking our order on a busy Saturday night, our perky young waitress asked, "Do you want that mild, medium, hot or 'Thai hot?'" It seemed clear that "Thai hot" might offer new vistas on the intersection of pleasure and pain. Instead, we opted for "Midwestern hot" by going all the way to "medium."
I love Pad Thai for its multiplicity of textures, with chewy noodles, crunchy peanuts, and crispy bean sprouts. And I love how "the ideal pad Thai sits in tenuous equilibrium between the forces of sweet, salty, and sour in its components," according to journalist Pitchaya Sudbanthad, with none dominating the others. That delicious balance, along with liberal applications of coconut, peanut and lime, is what makes Thai food so delicious.
414 S. Main St., Suite 130, Ann Arbor
- Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner: Monday-Thursday: 5-9:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday: 5-10 p.m.; Sunday: 4-9:30 p.m.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
- Liquor: Beer and wine
- Prices: Moderate. Entrees $12-$22. Lunch specials $8.49.
- Noise level: Moderate
- Wheelchair access: Yes
According to Sudbanthad in his article on the history of Pad Thai, "before the 1940s, Pad Thai didn’t exist as a common dish. Its birth and popularity came out of the nationalist campaign of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram." Sudbanthad writes that as part of the modernization campaign, Pibulsongkram also changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, and decreed the use of forks and spoons rather than hands (also the reason that forks and spoons rather than chopsticks are on the table at Marnee Thai).
Marnee Thai has an extensive menu that includes a good selection of appetizers, soups, "spicy Thai salads," and a very respectable number of vegetarian (often vegan) dishes in addition to their entrees and desserts. (Also, they were careful to tell us that they do not use fish sauce in their vegetarian dishes).
I had never tried the famous Som Tam, or green papaya salad, before. This combination of "shredded green papaya, tomato, dried shrimp, green beans and peanuts tossed with Thai chili, garlic and lime juice" is served in a wooden chalice. The tomato was pale and the green beans indiscernible, but the bold spicy flavors and refreshing crunch of this dish were wonderful. Although we ordered it "medium" spicy, it hovered tantalizingly close to "Thai hot" for us.
Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, our across the board request for "medium" spicy sometimes resulted in heat that was barely detectable, sometimes in heat that was ferocious. Though mostly it was just right.
I read that there are five main chilies used in Thai cooking, and the fiercest heat comes from the tiniest pepper known as "garden mouse-dropping chili." I'm guessing that must be the one that gives the "death touch" level of heat that a friend told us about.
Spicy food pairs well with Marnee Thai's brief list of beers (including two from Thailand), and the inexpensive, food-friendly wines (Reisling, Pinot Grigio, and Merlot) they have chosen. Marnee Thai has a very respectable Thai iced coffee and sweet Thai iced tea, but I am crazy about their lime soda — a tall glass with fresh lime juice, palm sugar, and soda water over ice. I could drink that all day.
We also enjoyed the platter of mixed appetizers with "fish cake, spring rolls, chicken and beef satay, and golden fried shrimp." The coating on the shrimp got a little soggy, but the shrimp were plump and well-cleaned. The fish cake and spring rolls were delightfully crispy. The peanut sauce for the satay was smooth and garlicky. Overall it was a nice way to try several different menu items.
I also appreciated the vegetarian tofu spring rolls "stuffed with vermicelli, tofu, cabbage, carrot, soy sauce and palm sauce." These savory long and slender rolls are served standing in a glass like breadsticks, and they are just as easy to eat.
One dish that surprised me was the Lotus Duck, "deep-fried duck served with a special tamarind-coffee sauce." Duck is not something I would normally think to order in a Thai restaurant. A dining companion chose this dish, in which large pieces of crisp-skin duck mingle with slices of sweet red pepper and chunks of eggplant in a rich dark sauce. The duck was juicy and flavorful, the vegetables maintained their integrity, and the sauce was deep and complex with garlic, tart tamarind and roasty coffee.
The Tom Kha Gai is a "creamy coconut milk soup with chicken, lime, chili, lemongrass, mushrooms and aromatic galanga." I loved how the lime brightened the spicy rich coconut broth, but look out for tough shards of lemongrass.
I also liked the rich gang masaman, yellow curry with chicken, "mixed with coconut milk, potato, onion and peanut." Lots of soft creamy textures and mild curry and coconut made me think it was probably Thai comfort food.
For dessert, there are several variations on sticky rice and coconut. My favorite was the Kanom tuay "a tasty sweet Thai dessert: flour, coconut milk, sugar and salt." For this dessert, three tiny saucers filled with warm coconut pudding are served smoking hot on a single platter. This rich sweet has two layers: smooth coconut cream on top, a stiff coconut jelly below.
The kow obb subparod, pineapple curry fried rice, with "chicken, pineapple, yellow curry, peas, carrots, onion and dried shredded pork," was served dramatically in a hollowed out half of a pineapple but barely tasted of curry. And while I didn't see any shredded pork, I liked the firm texture of the peas.
Similarly, the garlic asparagus "sautéed with garlic and soy sauce, topped with bell pepper," was beautifully cooked with excellent color and texture—but I wished it had more asparagus flavor.
Things I found less appealing included the tofu and taro vegetarian appetizer in which even tangy sauces and deep-frying could not redeem bland triangles of tofu and weird balls of springy taro. Likewise, the vegetarian Gang jued tofu soup with "soft tofu and napa cabbage in a vegetable broth with garlic, shiitake mushroom and glass vermicelli" was an odd assortment of the bland and mushy in a watery (yet spicy hot) broth.
And how was the Pad Thai? The menu describes it as the "original famous Thai-style noodles with tofu, egg, bean sprout, green onion, preserved radish and shrimp, topped with ground peanuts."
I kept thinking about Pitchaya Sudbanthad's description of Pad Thai as a dish of cultural intersection, with "the tamarind that recalls Indian cooking; fish sauce that, although more pungent, functions very much like Chinese soy sauce; palm sugar from the south and Malay states that gives it the universal taste of candy; and nearly everyone without the allergy loves the ground peanuts that, like the chile pepper now ubiquitous in Thai food, is a relatively new arrival from the New World."
As for Marnee Thai's version of Pad Thai — I liked it. It was a little on the sweet side, with a hint of tart tamarind and a whiff of spicy chile. The noodles were nice and springy and the bean sprouts fresh. We got the version with chunks of fried tofu. I liked the slices of red pepper, and the sprinkling of peanut. Although I wished for a little more complexity — from some more dried shrimp or pickled turnip or cilantro even — it was a good, basic version of Pad Thai for mainstream America.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.