Sawaddee Thai Restaurant

Let a thousand spices bloom
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 17, 2010

SAWADDEE THAI RESTAURANT | 401.831.1122 | | 93 Hope St, Providence | Mon-Thurs, 11 am-10 pm; Fri, 11 am-11 pm; Sat-Sun, 12-11 pm  | Major credit cards | BYOB | Sidewalk-level accessible
Sometimes I think back to when there were no Thai restaurants in Providence. Much like missionaries think back to all those pagan babies who grew up to join choirs and sing Hallelujah! Only in this case it's more like, My God — what's that marvelous spice?

In 1984, Sue Wongsit opened Bangkok Cuisine on Warwick Avenue, and a thousand restaurants bloomed. Well, it's seemed like that many over the subsequent years. One was Bangkok Cuisine's reincarnation, Sawaddee Thai Restaurant, when it arrived on the East Side in 1996, in the midst of the foodie revolution Wongsit had so well helped incite. (She had learned at the knees of her parents and relatives in Bangkok.)

I don't know that I've ever had a bad Thai meal. It's a cuisine whose offerings are such that even mediocre tends to be acceptable. The recipes rely on combining, contrasting, and complementing taste components, particularly spices, and my American palate isn't familiar with the rarified upper reaches of the art. The one exception to the no bad meals declaration is more accurately described as traumatic rather than bad. In the early years of Thai food around here, in one of our first restaurant experiences with such, every bite was so spicy hot that I kept checking for melting fillings, until my tongue grew too numb to do so. To attract non-Thai diners, most restaurants soon adopted the three-chili system of Szechuan menus.

Sawaddee is a comfortable place, made homey by such touches as swags atop the windows. There is glass over the tablecloths, straw placemats on top. There are no automatic pots of jasmine tea, but cups of a wonderfully earthy brewed Thai tea ($1.95) arrived promptly.

We tried their two classic Thai soups ($3-$3.75, depending on whether you choose vegetables, chicken, or shrimp). Their tom yum has a nicely balanced hot and sour from chili paste and lemongrass, with kaffir lime leaves and mushroom slices. I never pass up tom kha, which is sometimes named tom kha gai. The chicken broth and coconut milk is flavored with galanga root, lemongrass, and cilantro. Mine had loads of chicken and enough mushrooms for some in every spoonful.

For starters we also had to fu tod ($3.95), which German-speaking Johnnie translated as "dead tofu" and giggled. The triangles being soft tofu rather than hard made the deep-fried texture even more of a contrast. It was served with a sweet rice vinegar peanut sauce rather than the menu-promised plum sauce. We also had angel shrimp ($4.95), which are stretched out on skewers, wrapped and fried, served with both a sweet and a spicy hot sauce. Our table company, quite familiar with the menu, ordered the satay ($5.95), and the chicken was tasty both from its charcoal grilling and an intriguing marinade.

Being with regular customers of the place, we trusted that the pad Thai was A-OK and didn't bother ordering a dish for the table. Noticing Tarra as familiar, proprietor Wongsit smiled and predicted that she was going to order choo chee ($12.95), a seafood medley that includes a salmon fillet in spicy red curry. But I didn't want to overdose on coconut milk, so we compromised with the ta lay Thai ($10.95), a sauté of shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari, and crab-flavored surimi, tasty with spicy shrimp paste and a touch of ginger. The sauce was marvelous over rice.

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