It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Thai Canteen is completely empty.
It’s a shame, really. Many diners have probably dismissed Thai Canteen automatically for being the eighth Thai place in Davis. But they shouldn’t – the restaurant serves up Thai food in a fresh style that’s unlike any other in the city.
College students should immediately appreciate the prices, which range from $6.95 to 8.50 for an entrée and don’t come with an obligatory 15 percent tip – customers order and pay at the counter. However, that doesn’t mean guests only receive mundane counter service. Thai Canteen’s friendly employees are continuously checking in on tables, filling water glasses and even offering to tone down the spice levels for diners unbeknownst to authentic Thai spice levels.
Students can also take advantage of the restaurant’s free Wi-Fi to do some late night studying, as it’s open daily until 2 a.m. Thai Canteen’s menu plays host to a number of “snacks,” small plates that are often fried and ideal for sharing.
Best of all, the food comes out in minutes. Literally.
Gai satay ($5.50) – four marinated strips of chicken skewered and grilled – was clean and surprisingly elegant. The chicken was sweet and tender and the peanut sauce was thick and flavorful. The accompanying cucumber salad was a light, refreshing contrast. Kieow za ($4.95) is another successful snack option. Six pan-fried chicken and shrimp dumplings come with a tangy soy-based dipping sauce. Think pot stickers, but far more delicate.
Thai Canteen truly shines wherever coconut milk is involved. Tom kha ($4.50) – a traditional coconut milk broth with thin slices of chicken, lemongrass, kaffir leaves and cilantro – is beautifully presented with vibrant dots of chili oil. The small cup size is ideal to start a meal.
An absolute standout is one of Thai Canteen’s specials, the kow soi. Egg noodles, chicken and a boiled egg mingle with a thinner, soup-like yellow coconut curry. Deep-fried crispy noodles sit on top for a textural contrast. Every bite was experiential – the complex flavor profile revealed new waves of flavor and fragrance. While this technically isn’t on the menu, specials can be requested any time so long as the kitchen has the ingredients.
Another special, which consisted of honey roasted duck and pineapple in a luscious red curry, was divine. It’s sweet from the combination of tender chunks of duck and pineapple, yet slightly sour and spicy. Panang nuer ($6.95) – thin strips of beef in a kaffir panang curry – also had an excellent heat and richness. The beef, likely due to being cut so thin, was slightly chewy.
Rice plates are generally successful, although the rice occasionally came out a little cold and dry. Pad med mamuang ($6.95) – meat with stir-fried cashews, water chestnuts, onions and chilies – was slightly sweet and contained a nice, mild heat. While the cashews were lovingly glazed and the meat was tender, the dish could have benefited from a sauce. Kana moo grob ($6.95) – thin slices of house-cured pork belly and Chinese broccoli – wasn’t a curry dish, but it still held a small pool of sauce for sopping up rice. A Thai fried egg ($1.25) makes a lovely addition to the kana moo grob, providing some oozing goodness to balance the crispy pork.
Thai Canteen’s menu also features a number of crowd-pleasing noodle dishes. Giow nahmmu daeng ($6.95) – a noodle soup with Thai pork wontons and roast pork – is a safe choice for those a little fearful of Thai cuisine. The slightly sweet soup comes in a massive portion, too.
Pad thai ($6.95/7.95) is an old standby for a good reason. The stir-fried rice noodles with meat, egg, nuts, sprouts and chives are almost always tasty, anywhere. Thai Canteen has a solid rendition, and it’s tough to beat the price. For those thinking of venturing away from pad thai, pad si ew ($6.95/7.95) is a good starting point. Wide rice noodles are stir-fried with meat and Chinese broccoli, all generously coated in a Thai sweet soy sauce. The sauce is almost syrupy, but ideal for those who enjoy a combination of sweet and savory.
Adventurous eaters might be drawn to the salads, which unite more exotic ingredients such as green mango with shrimp. Nuer namtok ($6.50) – perfectly pink grilled strips of steak tossed with parched rice, kaffir, lemongrass and chili lime juice – benefits from being ordered at the mild spice-level. At medium or higher, the steak is drenched in seasonings, which completely overwhelm the meat’s natural flavors. Luckily, employees kindly remake dishes if a customer gets a little over ambitious with the spice levels.
All of this extremely flavorful food is served in a chic, modern setting. A long community table fosters conversation amongst strangers and an open, spotless kitchen provides assurance to potentially concerned patrons. The restaurant has a surprisingly extensive beer selection, too.
Thai Canteen in located at 117 E St., formerly Crepe House Uni and within a one-block radius of at least three other Thai restaurants.
JANELLE BITKER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.