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What would you do if you tackled the varied menu at SABAI'S THAI CUISINE? Our critic knows what she'd do.

If I were you, the first thing I would do at Sabai's Thai Cuisine is ask for a glass of Thai iced tea, a robust mixture of black tea and spices dyed the color of terra cotta that's topped off with sweetened condensed milk. Its thick sweetness softens -- but doesn't annihilate -- the excellent heat of chile peppers characterizing so many authentic Thai dishes, which is good because there's no beer yet at Sabai's. When my friend requested a "Thai lemonade," owner Santhi Antarikananda, who opened the restaurant four months ago with his wife, Phakawali (better known as Lee), produced a glass of fresh-squeezed, salty-sweet limeade in a frosty blue glass. The limeade isn't on the current menu, but judging from the couple's hunger for customer feedback, it'll make the cut soon if enough people ask for it.

Next, I would torture myself choosing a first course. Discovering Sabai's shredded green papaya (like a fruity zucchini) and carrot salad marinating slowly in garlic, fish sauce and lime juice, and finished with crushed peanuts, was a double-edged sword. Now it's stiff competition for my former favorite Thai salad, larb. Sometimes called laap, sometimes called Chieng Mai salad, larb at Sabai's is a striking mixture of barely warm, minced chicken and red chiles offset by lime juice, fish sauce and cooling mint leaves. Like most dishes, salads are big enough for two and served family-style on cobalt blue and white platters with big serving spoons. You transfer as much as you want onto your cobalt blue and white salad plate, which was set on the table with an ornately folded napkin long before you arrived.

The pretty dinnerware, rice served in small lidded pots, shiny faux teak furniture and back-lit travel posters of Thailand lend a certain authenticity to a Thai restaurant that shares a Gretna strip mall with two nail salons and two sports bars. When your eyes linger on a hand-carved wooden mandala on one wall, its swirls and grooves begin to ripple and spin as if the lotus flower in the center is blooming a thousand times over. The most beautiful woman in the room is a mannequin in traditional dress who greets everyone at the door with her hands in prayer position.

You could solve the salad predicament by ordering the tom ka kai instead -- a coconut milk-based chicken soup with straw mushrooms served in nearly every Thai restaurant I've visited. I use it as a standard, like the spicy tuna roll at a sushi house (does the chef use the good tuna or fibrous scraps?) and the fries at a Belgian restaurant (do they cut their own and fry them twice?). If a Thai kitchen flunks the tom ka kai, chances are slim that the entrees will fare any better. Sabai's superb version is perfumed with bits of galanga (like ginger root), lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, all of which are unpleasant to swallow but fun to chew.

The entree choice is a no-brainer: Thai green curry with pork. Each Thai chef has his own curry paste recipes, the green one typically containing -- at least -- garlic, shallot, ginger, green chiles, lemon grass and various spices. Made into a gray-green coconut stew, Sabai's green curry is fiery and fruity. Cubes of skinned eggplant soaking in it taste like honeydew melon; thin strips of pork have been beaten tender. A true maniac would eat the slices of raw red chile used for garnish, seeds and all. While I love to sweat it out, Sabai's kitchen will tailor any dish to your own spice tolerance.

Pad Thai connoisseurs will be happy here, if not blown away. The thin, flat rice noodles buzz with low-level spice, and it's a good idea to request extra lime and mung bean sprouts. I ordered mine with fried tofu, but you could opt for pork, chicken or shrimp instead. The licorice flavor of Thai basil impresses itself into strips of beef in a lovely stir-fry with red chiles and garlic that Lee says is "drinking food" in Thailand. Only a duck stir-fry with bamboo shoots and red curry, and lava beef with green beans and the house brick-red curry (made briny with dried shrimp) were too oily for my comfort.

I wouldn't blame anyone who started with dessert. Rice cooked in coconut cream and hand-formed into sticky mounds comes with ripe mango -- a dessert that's so perfect I always end up wondering why we bother with temperamental pastries and cakes that fall. There's also sticky rice with Thai custard, a cross between flan and bread pudding, made with country-sweet palm sugar.

Skip the lunch buffet on principle. Other customers got into it (one man hiccuped twice as he pushed away his third empty plate), but the best buffet in Thailand is unlikely to meet the same standards that Sabai's made-to-order dishes do. There's a short lunch menu, and the dinner menu is available anytime.

Then again, I'm not you. Since Sabai's menu is long, and since I suffer a perpetual craving for Thai food, let me know what you would order next time if you were me.

click to enlarge Curry infuses several of the best dishes at SABAI'S THAI CUISINE, including its vegetable curry dip. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Curry infuses several of the best dishes at SABAI'S THAI CUISINE, including its vegetable curry dip.


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