39 Evans St., Hamburg, NY 14075
Web: Thai House
Rating: [learn more]
Hamburg's first Thai restaurant, with outstanding service and a very nice venue. Generally large, meaty portions.
Food quality ranged from okay to poor, with most dishes bearing too little resemblance in taste to authentic versions offered elsewhere in Western New York; some were not worth eating or finishing. Not a good pick for those who know real Thai food.
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"We were excited by what we saw, an emotion that gave way to sadness after the first bite, as we realized that we'd received a dish of chewy, almost flavorless meat to eat through."
Would you trust a critic who only reviewed restaurants he wanted to praise? What about a person who inflated or deflated ratings based on factors that had nothing to do with the meal or the dining experience? Or one who covered places in an effort to earn their advertising? As long-time reviewers and readers of reviews, we've been concerned by these sorts of issues for years. They've also strengthened our resolve to be impartial and agenda-free whenever we publish reviews: rather than pandering, drooling, or skewing, we write with the honesty and perspective we'd hope others would offer us under the same circumstances.
So permit us to open our discussion of Thai House with a brief glimpse behind the curtain, a reverse-chronological telling of how this review came to be. As we drove away from the restaurant, a tastefully converted bar that looks from the outside like just another home in its Hamburg neighborhood, one of us said a phrase that's never spoken around here: "we can't review that place." This broke an uncomfortable silence that had developed as we were walking out of the restaurant, which had been praised by people who either tacitly or openly acknowledged that they had little experience with Thai food. We debated whether to write at all, and if so, what to say, as we felt conflicted by the experience we'd just had, yet didn't want to compromise our principles by either saying nothing or pulling punches.
Why would we care so much about this place? The answer is simple: pedigree. As the third restaurant to splinter off from Amherst's now-defunct Harlem Road location of The King & I, Thai House is another product of the same amazing family, which after relocating from Rochester and Thailand set up one of New York State's very best Thai restaurants in a humble, perpetually packed venue. Forced to relocate, the kids of the owner and chef went in separate directions, creating their own places in the same general style. One on Kensington Avenue took the same name, The King & I, while Hertel Avenue received Taste of Thai, an equally good alternative. Now there's Thai House, which similarly offers linen tablecloth seating for perhaps 75 people, a menu with plenty of choices - a subset of The King & I's - and seriously outstanding, friendly service.
That latter point deserves to be underscored: the people who run Thai House are truly decent. They were attentive, engaging hosts, trying to make sure that all of their patrons were satisfied, and surprising us by bringing out two complimentary desserts at the end of our sizable lunch. It was obvious that they're trying to win steady customers one table at a time, and from the comments we've seen from people in Hamburg, they're succeeding.
So, although we weren't really hungry for the desserts at the end of our meal, we enjoyed one of them: an upside-down bowl-shaped portion of Taro Pudding. Made from a potato-like starch that's popular throughout Asia, this pudding was a slightly sweet alternative to gelatin with a consistency like pumpkin pie, and having had it many times before, we can say that Thai House's version was actually quite good. But we weren't as enamored with the Kao Tom Mud, two banana leaf-wrapped dollops of sweet glutinous rice with conspicuous black beans, coconut milk, and bananas mixed in. They weren't bad, but they were way heavier on the sweet, glutinous part than the rice, and didn't have any of the fresh punch of flavor that the ingredients could have delivered. The Taro Pudding should be on the menu but isn't; the Kao Tom Mud normally goes for $4.
These desserts were a nice enough ending for a not so great meal. In typical fashion, we had ordered dishes spanning a number of styles in an effort to see how Thai House did with various types of preparation, but here, nothing had quite come out as expected - the items looked right, but tasted anywhere from a little to a lot off. Take for instance the Num Tok ($11), a room temperature beef salad we ordered as one of our entrees, familiar to us from dozens of restaurants. Thai House's version arrived as a generous pile of beef, beautifully stacked with thin-sliced onions, red peppers, scallions and cilantro, and was promised to be "mixed well in Thai spicy dressing." We were excited by what we saw, but that gave way to sadness after the first bite, as we realized that we'd received a dish of chewy, almost flavorless meat and would need to make our way through it. It didn't happen.
Another entree was the Pud Prig Pow with Roasted Duck and Cashew Nuts ($17.95), one of our long-time favorites from The King & I and Taste of Thai. Like the salad, the supposedly spicy brown sauce was on the weak side - here, not offensively so - and the duck meat wasn't great, cut too thin and small, with only small traces of fat and no crispy skin whatsoever. If the duck had been roasted, it hadn't been brought to a crisp in the manner classically associated with this dish. We were able to improve the plate somewhat with a set of three spice bowls placed in a metal centerpiece, one a thin red sauce, the next a thicker Sriracha sauce, and the last a bowl of straight chili pepper flakes. The spice didn't bring the Pud Prik Pow to the right depth of flavor or thickness, but added enough punch to help us finish the dish. All things considered, this was the best of the items we ordered, and the closest to what you'd find at The King & I.
By contrast, the Tom Yum Soup with Chicken ($4) was the polar opposite of versions we've had and enjoyed elsewhere, with a thin, watery broth that was virtually transparent where it hadn't been splashed with chili oil, and light on the typically tangy, spicy flavors we'd expect. It looked great, but tasted as if it had been incorrectly mixed from a store bought Tom Yum package, rather than made fresh or right. Like the other dishes, the soup's bland flavor was offset modestly by the presence of plenty of sliced meat and mushrooms, which were edible but not delicious.
The other appetizers were similarly underwhelming. Chicken Satay ($7), skewered, marinated chicken on four sticks - typically served with peanut sauce - was dry outside and in, with a sauce that wasn't especially peanutty; it was edible but not great. We also picked an Appetizer Sampler ($13) to see how Thai House rendered several of our favorites, and found them to be uniformly greasy and not so hot on flavor: Golden Baskets, typically rice paper bundles served with minced meat and vegetables, were made here with flour wrappers and stuffed with a gooey, pasty crab filling that we actually found to be pretty gross. Squid Tentacles, normally made with at least a slightly higher proportion of squid bits to golden crust, arrived here as a beautiful clump that was almost entirely deep-fried batter. Coconut Shrimp were three nice-sized shrimp that had been battered and deep fried, then placed under a pile of shaved white coconut and served with a coconut dipping sauce - these were fine, but not really Thai in preparation. The Poh Pia Tod were the closest to "right" of these items, rice paper egg rolls wrapped and fried to an absolute crisp, with a soft, unspectacular chicken and vegetable mixture inside. Topped with a sprinkling of peanuts, the sweet and sour dipping sauce on the plate was right on, and helped make the items a little more edible. Still, we didn't want to finish everything.
Ultimately, it was that feeling - dissatisfaction with a representation of a cuisine that we love - that made us feel as compelled to write about Thai House as we have been to praise some of its area predecessors. We're aware that some diners have been satisfied with the place, and it's helped by the facts that it's staffed so well, and located in a part of Western New York that has little exposure to Thai food. But after years of reading and writing reviews, our belief is that the critic's proper role is to provide unbiased, informed analysis in an effort to improve the status quo - to praise that which is truly worthy of praise, and to challenge others to rise to a higher standard.
Thus, as much as we feel strongly that Thai House's staff and venue are assets to the area's dining scene, our 1.5-star rating was reached without dissent: by the standards of other local Thai restaurants, particularly its siblings in Buffalo and Amherst, the food needs serious work; it will only sate those with little to no familiarity with authentic Thai preparation. That said, with a chef worthy of the rest of the experience, this restaurant would offer Hamburg the same mind-expanding culinary experiences that its neighbors have been enjoying for years, and should that happen, we'll gladly give it another shot.