Gainesville has had a sad offering of Thai food for some time now. Whether it be the raw chicken and 30 year old mold found at the old Bahn Thai (thankfully they are finally moving), the now defunct Tim's Thai, or all the wannabe Pad Thai's at every "Asian Fusion" place in town. There just hasn't been anything good since Moraghot Thai closed years ago. When I heard of Rice Thai opening in Gainesville, I was very excited to finally have another Thai restaurant available. Located on SW 34th Street in the same plaza as Pho Hanoi and Indian Cuisine, Rice Thai had their soft opening at the end of last week and plan a grand opening soon.
The restaurant is located in the former Indian Cuisine unit, who moved to the other end of the plaza. While the interior remains mostly unchanged with the exception of some large Thai paintings and new dining tables, what they did introduce was a very odd smell that immediately put me off. It was a mix of industrial cleaners and mothballs. Hopefully this is something they solve before the grand opening.
The menu is not large, but offers most of the favorites. I visited with a couple friends so we ordered a number of appetizers. Fried Tofu ($6), Chicken Satay ($8), and Crab Rangoon ($4) were all very very overpriced for the portions. It would appear that their idea of good presentation is to toss a few pieces of food on top of fried rice noodle bits (as pictured). The Chicken Satay in particular was a whopping $8 for 4 small skewers and some dipping sauce! While everything tasted good and came with good dipping sauces, the portions were entirely too small for the price and none of them were worth writing home about. Skip the apps unless you have money to blow.
All of the entrees come with rice and a house salad, which may have been the most depressing salad known to mankind. It was quite literally a plate of lettuce VERY lightly drizzled with some sesame oil and a few pieces of shaved carrots. I must emphasize that drizzle is an overstatement, it was more like...a flick. Between the smell, the appetizers, and the salad, I must admit this was not a good start.
No matter though, because what I really came for was the Pad Thai. I love Pad Thai, and up until this point, the only good rendition I've had in North Florida is from Ayuttaya in Ocala. In a great Pad Thai dish, you should be able to taste equal parts peanut sauce, tamarind sauce, and fish sauce with egg, green onions, fresh bean sprouts, and your choice of meat. It is the national dish of Thailand and if a Thai restaurant can't make this dish right, then they are just wasting their time. I'm happy to report that Rice Thai's version is actually quite good, though the noodles were slightly overcooked. Given the choice of spiciness level, even the mild (I'm a wuss) had some good kick to it. All the veggies were fresh and I could pick out each of the three main sauces in the ingredients. It was fragrant, sweet, savory, and everything the dish should be. At $11.95 for chicken, it's reasonably priced and a decent sized portion as well (Tofu & Veggie versions are available for the same price, $13.95 for beef, and $14.95 for shrimp/scallops/or squid).
A friend ordered the Massaman Curry ($12.95 - chicken in a tamarind curry with coconut milk, sweet potatoes, avocado, peanuts and onion) and found it to be quite good as well and comparable to that at Ichiban. Other items on the menu include Panang Curry (red curry with coconut milk, bell peppers, peas, carrots and kaffir lime), Green and Yellow Curries, and a variety of vegetable stir fries all priced between $12.95 and $17.95 depending on your choice of meat. The "Asian Fusion" menu is slightly more pricey with items like Grilled Salmon ($18), Seared Scallops ($22), Duck Curry ($22), and Volcano Jumbo Shrimp ($22 - grilled jumbo shrimp with veggies and the ever generic "brown" sauce).
Is this the best Thai in North Florida? No, Ayuttaya in Ocala still wears that crown. Is it great Thai food? No, I'd say it's "good." But until someone else proves otherwise (fingers crossed for the upcoming Bangkok Square) or Bahn Thai builds a Delorean time machine and travels to 1993, this is probably the best we have in Gainesville right now. Though there are kinks to work out, I'm confident this mom and pop Thai restaurant can get it all sorted out and offer us some decent Thai food!