Thai cuisine is soul-satisfying food, sometimes simple and sometimes complex but always focused on five basic flavors – sweet, spicy, salty, sour, and bitter.
Cooking in Thailand reflects the culinary influence of neighbors and traders like China, India, and Portugal, but with a uniquely Thai twist. The result is food that is bright, light, and sure to delight.
An uptick in immigration from Thailand in recent decades has fired the growth of restaurants serving dishes like Tom Yum soup and Pad Thai noodles. Often, their menus also feature sushi and other Japanese small plates, Indonesian dishes, and pan-Asian fusions.
In metro Birmingham, everything from street food to fancy dishes can be found in the city’s Southside area and nearby suburban cities. Here are a few to try, with suggestions for starters and main courses. Price ranges with some dishes reflect an upcharge for more expensive proteins like shrimp.
Another well-established restaurant, Taste of Thailand creates an exotic and upscale atmosphere. Its extensive menu is studded with unusual and eye-catching dishes like the fisherman soup ($14.95) served in a flaming hot pot. The sushi is excellent, too, but this is where you go for Thai dishes that are not available elsewhere.
Starter: Yum Talay ($17.95) is a salad with squid, shrimp, and crab meat bathed in a house-made dressing and topped with onion, tomato, and cilantro.
Main: Several whole fish options ($15.95) are served in various sauces – spicy, sweet and sour, sweet and hot, or punched up with red curry paste. Ginger fish is prepared with shreds of ginger, green onion, white onion, mushrooms, and red and green bell pepper and served in house-made ginger sauce ($15.95).
Since opening in 2015 inside a converted gas station, the Aroon family has built a devoted following with its homestyle specials like beef or pork noodle soup and colorful Thai curries. Topped with ground crispy rice, the meaty, lime-kissed pork laap “salad” ($9) may be the best you’ll ever taste without needing a passport.
Starter: Spicy coconut soup with mushrooms, cilantro, and choices among chicken, tofu, or shrimp ($6-$8).
Main: Pad Ka Tem-Prik Thai, stir-fried meat with garlic sauce and topped, Thai-style, with a fried egg. Protein choices include chicken or pork ($8), shrimp, beef, or tofu ($9).
The small restaurant near the Publix in the Vestavia City Center covers all the basics, with a few surprises like soft-shell crab with green curry ($23.99), and chili eggplant stir-fry with meat, tofu, or vegetable options ($13.99-$16.99).
Starter: Thai fresh basil roll ($6.99 for two). Also known as a salad roll, the filling of lettuce, shrimp, fresh basil, and bean sprouts is rolled in a soft wrapper made from rice. It is not fried.
Main: Always try the namesake. Masaman curry is the bridge between Indian- and Thai-style curries. Masaman’s combination of fragrant spices, coconut milk, cashew, and fresh herbs is sublime.
The restaurant in a plaza off Cahaba River Road has pivoted to to-go only during a dining room renovation and expansion. In addition to Thai cuisine, Nori’s eclectic menu features Indonesian dishes like beef Rendang, and Japanese-style sushi, ramen, and rice-filled Donburi bowls.
Starter: Potsticker ($8.95). Asian-style meat-and-vegetable dumplings are served with Penang curry dipping sauce.
Main: Nom Tok beef ($20.50) gets a spicy marinade before it is grilled and served with basil leaves, red onion, fresh cabbage, and sprinkled with rice powder.
The Surin chain, founded in Atlanta in 1990, is the granddaddy of Thai restaurants in both Georgia and Alabama. The first Birmingham outpost, Surin West in Five Points South, opened in 1995. Later expansions include locations off U.S. 280, in Mountain Brook’s Crestline community, and Huntsville. Although Surin may be as popular for its sushi, their Thai food is a great gateway for novices. The menu distinctly notes relative spice levels using one or more chili pepper icons.
Starter: Satay ($8.50 chicken, $10.50 beef). The meat, marinated in Thai spices and coconut milk, is skewered, grilled, and served with thick peanut sauce.
Main: Pad Prik ($14.50-$17.50). Tofu or meat is stir-fried in a pleasantly spicy sauce with onions, garlic, bell pepper, and straw mushrooms.
Yum Yai, located in a hillside plaza off U.S. 280 near the main entrance to Greystone, specializes in street-stall food like hand-held small bites and both noodle and rice dishes. The Karee noodle bowl ($14-$16) blends mild yellow curry, and rice noodles with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and fried wonton.
Starter: Tom Kha soup made with coconut milk, lemongrass, and green onions ($5/$10 cup/bowl for tofu or chicken; $12/bowl for shrimp).
Main: Kao Pad Poo crab-fried rice with soy sauce, green onions, and topped with an egg. Served with the sweet-sour-salty Thai condiment prik nam pla ($25).