There was a time when a good number of my lunchtime repasts were enjoyed at this very address, back when Schlotzsky’s Deli occupied the space. So as I glided across the black-and-white checkered floor (the sole vestige from those heady deli days) to my comfortable banquette, I couldn’t help reminiscing about those deeply satisfying oven-toasted sandwiches and hoping SEA Thai’s strikingly diverse menu would leave me just as satisfied.
Thankfully, the six siblings running SEA (an acronym for “Southeast Asia,” but also an allusion to their modest seafood offerings) make customer contentment a priority. All have served as either waiters or cooks at other Siamese establishments around town, and if a culinary conundrum is encountered, parental consultation is just a phone call away.
The scene is simple and serene with a trace of lounge cool: A colorful wall of geometry evokes Mondrian, while colorful dishes evoke Shavitranuruk, the chef responsible for melding the four “S”s of Thai cookery – sweet, sour, spicy and salty. The mound of slivered green papaya ($5.95) specked with fresh garlic and soaked in vinegar and lemon elicits a proper pucker before the piercing stab of Thai green chilies numbs the tongue. The flavors are similar to Indian kachumber but with a far greater crunch, thanks to the papaya.
The perfumed broth of Thai lemongrass soup ($3.25) further demonstrates the kitchen’s consistency, and while the tempered use of fish sauce suggests a less-is-more approach, a cluster of baby corn, snow peas, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, scallions and cabbage refutes the notion. Even unadventurous fried spring rolls ($2.95) stuffed with glass noodles and assorted minced veggies show a fastidious commitment.
A complex confluence of flavors comprises the more than 50 available entrees, but none more so than chili red snapper ($26.95). The enormous, impeccably crisp fish is served whole atop a slather of chili-laced hot and sour sauce jeweled with diced red and green peppers. It’s the sort of dish that gets you lost in the moment and makes raising your head a challenging endeavor.
Lime juice and chili sauce provoke the palate in the tiger tear steak ($12.95), a marinated strip loin served sizzling on a hot plate. The hiss of the fat dripping from the meat gives the dish its weepy name, and you’ll cry for more once you’re done. Two sauces – a lip-smacking dip of garlic, rice powder and crushed chilies, and a sweet “American-style teriyaki sauce,” as my waitress put it – enhance the succulence of the beef.
Refreshing coconut and slightly bitter mango ice cream ($4.95) set atop gelatinous sticky rice brings the meal to a tropical finish and provides some much-needed oral relief. I couldn’t get enough of buttery Thai donuts ($3.95) tinseled with a glimmering honey drizzle. If you’re like me and melt at the thought of any butter-filled confection, this is the capper for you.
The glut of Thai restaurants in town has given rise to an ever-growing legion of devotees, many of whom have cultivated a discriminating palate for all things Siamese. SEA Thai certainly belongs in the category of restaurants worthy of a visit, its loyal following being a testament to the kitchen’s proficiency and the jolly disposition of its staff. My waitress seemed to be perpetually beaming which, as I learned when I made my way back to the car, ultimately proved infectious.