416 Evans St., Amherst, NY 14221
Rating: [learn more]
Locally unique menu items offer Thai fans good options they can't find elsewhere, while quality preparation of all dishes and good service will leave most diners very satisfied.
Little issues with certain dishes, ranging from absent ingredients to occasionally overbearing sauces, detract a little from their on-paper appeal. Limited Vietnamese menu.
See More Restaurant Reviews For:
Amherst Thai Vietnamese
"The Thai options are occasionally novel. Our server noted with pride that the Kanom Krok, described as 'delicate cups of coconut batter,' weren't found anywhere else in Buffalo."
Unpredictable isn't a word we generally use to describe Thai meals: after 17 years at Thai restaurants - including great ones - and a couple of trips to Thailand, we've felt like we know the cuisine like the back of our hands. Yet we found ourselves a little surprised and generally pleased by the meal we had this week at Thai Orchid Cafe, a brand new venue on Evans near Sheridan in Amherst. The menu was simultaneously familiar and a little new, as were the dishes we received; friendly service was amongst the more memorable highlights.
Occupying the site of the now-defunct restaurant Viet-Thai, Thai Orchid similarly offers a collection of both Thai and Vietnamese dishes, only very heavily skewed towards the Thai side of that equation. Vietnamese dishes are scattered, sometimes hidden, around the six pages of choices, such that two favorites, Bun (here, "Vietnamese Vermicelli") and Pho (beef noodle soup), both appear here as single menu items for the same $8 price, rather than as entire sections of the menu as they might be in Vietnamese restaurants. So-called "summer" or "fresh" rolls, soft, uncooked rice paper wrapped around meat, lettuce and rice noodles, are found in only one combination - shrimp and chicken; other Vietnamese classics are similarly limited, or nowhere to be found.
By contrast, the menu's Thai options are more numerous, and occasionally novel. Our server noted with pride that the Kanom Krok ($6.75), described as "delicate cups of coconut batter," weren't to be found anywhere else in Buffalo; these small, gooey white cups were gently cooked on stoneware to produce taut, slightly rubbery exteriors, and emerged with tiny dollops of black sesame seeds, scallions, and taro. Everyone at the table liked them. Similarly, a pleasantly remixed Tom Yum Noodle Soup ($7.25) combined the classic spiced and lime seafood soup with a sizable quantity of rice noodles, transforming an appetizer into an entree-sized, delicious meal at a reasonable price.
There were few complaints around the table regarding other dishes. We really liked the traditional Chicken Satay ($4.75), here available also in pork and beef, which arrived impressively moist despite its proper grilling, accompanied by an appropriately rich peanut sauce. Thai Orchid's twin "Vietnamese-Style Spring Rolls" ($3.50), the aforementioned unfried appetizer, tasted as expected, while a similarly room temperature variant, the Thai Orchid Spring Special Rolls ($7.50), was a larger, more substantial plate, coated with a brown sauce and garnished with shrimp and crab meat, replacing chicken with large pieces of pork. We agreed that the Special Rolls' wrappings were a little dry underneath the overwhelming quantity of sauce, which collectively drew some disappointment from the table, but no one was willing to stop eating them.
A couple of items weren't exactly as expected, but we generally liked them, anyway. The Spicy Grilled Beef Salad ($8.50), sold elsewhere as Yum Nua, appears here as Num Tok, and is almost entirely lightly cooked beef and onions, with too little lettuce - not normally the sort of thing we'd take issue with, but the dish felt imbalanced. Another familiar item, the yellow Garee Curry with Chicken ($9.75), arrived with carrots and onions but without its promised potatoes and squash because the restaurant was out. When we asked, we were nicely offered a substitute vegetable or a dessert as a fully acceptable replacement. The dessert, a Mango Sorbet with Fried Bananas, had a great sorbet, but so-so, slightly overcooked rice paper-wrapped banana slices.
Sauces tended to run a little on the thin side, but in reasonable quantities - dishes sometimes seemed to lean too much on them. The Vegetarian Delight ($8), a plate of broccoli, cauliflower, onions, carrots, and tofu, was tasty, but soaked in a brown garlic sauce. A Thai Orchid Soft Shell Crab dish ($14), admittedly ordered out of season, had two reasonably sized crispy, deep-fried crabs on a plate that was more conspicuously covered in onions, scallions, and a garlic chili sauce. The flavors of both dishes, and an appetizer Glass Noodle Salad ($8) - made with transparent bean thread noodles, ground rice, mint, and lime dressing - were, like the rest of the items, quite good, but not great. Presentation didn't seem to be enough of a concern, so our focus was squarely on the flavors; here, every dish was done well enough to satisfy, and occasionally surprise a little, but not enough to thrill.
Of course, restaurants needn't always thrill or surprise in order to satisfy customers; these are the marks of standouts. Thai Orchid Cafe is perhaps most exciting because of its competence and location: it's now the closest Thai or Vietnamese restaurant to Williamsville and Clarence, it's legitimately good, and because of its unique little twists, it doesn't feel like a mere clone of Saigon Bangkok, The King and I, Jasmine, or Taste of Thai. Provisionally, it's worthy of three stars, but we plan another visit before we issue a final rating; everyone agreed that it was certainly worth returning to, and soon.
Updated December, 2009: We've subsequently enjoyed numerous additional visits to Thai Orchid, and feel that the three-star rating is entirely justified for the reasons discussed above. Over time, the restaurant has proved especially interesting in the specials department, routinely offering soups, appetizers, and entrees that we wish would appear on the main menu, and as with some of the other top Thai restaurants in the area, we have yet to walk away feeling disappointed with a meal here. If some of those specials were regular menu items, a higher rating might well be warranted; as-is, this is a very good restaurant with occasionally awesome offerings.