I’m letting you in on one of my “Bet you didn’t know about this place” places, since it’s starting to become more and more well known anyway. And it deserves to!
Mai Thai is located just across the road from the quirkiest hotel in, well, just about anywhere: the Wildwood Inn. You know, the one with the race-car bed, the jungle room and the champagne glass tub? Even if the exotic setting isn’t enough to entice you to Florence Y’all, the food at Mai Thai should be.
Mai Thai isn't new, but it’s small and fairly easy to pass. On a recent Saturday night, we got the last table when we arrived at about 7:30 p.m. The crowd was diverse, including a double table of Japanese businessmen, a few families with kids and some couples on dates, perhaps taking a break to recharge for more Wildwood fun. You can burn some serious calories in that race-car bed, speedy! Vroom, vroom!
Though Mai Thai’s name is close to that of a classic Tiki cocktail, they don’t offer a full bar; but they do have a reasonable selection of beer, wine and sake. I ordered the chilled Nama sake ($5.75), and the mister went with Sho Chiku Bai, served warm ($4.50). The Nama, also made by Sho Chiku Bai, is organic and non-pasteurized, with a nice fresh flavor.
There are several tempting starters on the menu. I decided to try a shrimp tempura sushi handroll ($5), since it included two of my favorite things, asparagus and avocado, wrapped with a big, fat, freshly fried shrimp. It was served standing up like an ice cream cone in a special wooden handroll stand. And it was delicious.
Lately I’ve run into some sushi nori that you need a saw to chew through, but this was tender and tasty. Looking around the room I saw lots of sushi being served, including a big boat presentation that could be a marketing tie-in with the Wildwood if they had a Shogun theme room. Row! Row!
We liked the Thai spring rolls ($3.50) filled with spicy ground chicken and wood ear mushrooms, but even better were the crab puffs ($5.95). They were prettily packaged in spring roll wrappers, thinner and crispier than a typical fried wonton, and the filling was fluffy and flecked with crab.
I’d previously enjoyed Mango Curry with Tofu ($10.95) at Mai Thai. Its yellow curry sauce is just sweet enough and just fiery enough for perfect balance. But this time, I went with one of their specials, Ginger Fish ($15.95). Ooh, what a good choice! A very generous walleye filet was panko breaded and sautéed until it was perfectly done, and then sauced with loads of barely-cooked broccoli, sliced carrots, mushrooms and other vegetables, as well as slivered ginger to give it punch. It was more than enough to take half home for Sunday brunch.
Hubby went the Thai noodle route. His Pad Kee Mao ($10.50) was prepared with the wide rice noodles that are served in Lard Nar. The noodles were cut into manageable pieces and the dish was loaded with chicken and flavored with oyster sauce. Apparently Pad Kee Mao is nicknamed “Drunkard’s Noodles” in Thailand, where it’s eaten late-night on the way home from bars. The manual dexterity required to eat these slippery noodles makes me think that a bag of Sliders is a much simpler option under the circumstances, but your mileage might vary.
The crowd had started to thin out by the time we had the second halves of our entrées packed in carryout containers. I had my heart set on Sticky Rice with Mango ($5.95) for dessert, so Hubby dove into an order of Fried Bananas ($4). A great treat that kids would love, they were two very sweet, banana-filled spring rolls, fried crisply and topped with vanilla ice cream. Chocolate syrup, probably drizzled over the top for visual effect, wasn’t necessary.
The sticky rice was absolutely perfect, with ripe mango slices topped with a scoop of gooey coconut milk sweetened rice, garnished with coconut milk sauce and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. I’m sure this is Thai comfort food at its finest. A soothing, not-too-sweet finish to spicy cuisine.
Mai Thai’s a nice, low-key eatery with a young, friendly staff and incredibly reasonable prices. The space isn’t fancy and the tables are a little close together, but it’s non-smoking and the acoustics aren’t a problem. The food is definitely worth a drive, even if the portion sizes make you have to take a few extra laps around that race-car bed.
Ready? Start your engines!
Go: 7710 U.S. 42, Florence
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday ; dinner: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday, 4-10:30 p.m. Saturday
Entree Prices: $9-$16
Red Meat Alternatives: Many