Spending so much time on campus can make the available food options seem like the recent weather – gray, dull, festering and unwelcome. This is, of course, untrue. Portland is uniquely situated both geographically and sociologically and is blessed with an abundance of the world’s best food and chefs. We also have almost 300 sunny days a year. Sometimes the facts just don’t ring true. That is when it’s necessary to get a sudden, unexpected perspective on what you thought you knew. Welcome to Baan Thai.
Baan Thai is situated in the upper story of a converted house. There is outdoor dining, which is very nice during the summer. The sparsely decorated, brightly painted interior space consists of two dining rooms, in front and back. The space is uniformly brightly light and close, although not cramped. If you are looking for a cozy or romantic space for dinner, this probably isn’t it.
The menu is very large and full featured, as fits for a traditional Thai-style restaurant. Most of the dishes fall into one of several broad categories and differ only by inflections in spicing, cooking method and featured vegetable ingredients. Small changes in the types of spices can have tremendous effect, making Thai food the ideal platform for a talented cook. It also makes it very difficult for average cooks to imitate very well. This results in the type of Thai food you thought you knew, which is too often sloughed off on innocent restaurant patrons, over-spiced, unidentifiable or too sweet.
Baan Thai thankfully doesn’t have these issues. The food can be quite spicy, as it is cooked in a more authentic style. The spiciness, however, isn’t there to mask the depth of flavor in the dish, but to draw out the more subtle tastes. Consider, for instance, the beef salad. The presence of chili flakes on the salad in addition to a fairly spicy dressing (probably made with chili oil) could easily be overpowering, if it were not for the compelling combination of lime and basil, which creates a flavor that makes it so you don’t simply swallow the mouthful as fast as you can to avoid the spice. Since you spend longer chewing, you can get a better idea of the quality of the meat that goes into the salad and, finally, gain an appreciation for the fruity finish of the salad dressing.
This might seem fairly complicated for a simple salad and, in one sense, it is. Thai food excels in these fine differences between textures, however, and the presence of and playfulness with them is how great Thai cooking can be noticed. Baan Thai never fails to draw out the subtleties of the food in deference to speed or ease of preparation and so they always thrill and excite.
The expanse of the menu can also seem a little daunting, but the servers are eager to help choose an option. They may not know exactly how to describe each dish, but if you tell them your preferences, they are sure to help you find something good. Most of the entrees, all of the salads and all of the lunch options are priced so that most PSU students should be able to affordably eat a meal here once or twice a week.
They also have a considerable reputation in the campus community, especially for a facility of their size and capacity. Baan Thai usually has some rocking lunch specials, and getting a table among the administrators, faculty, students and assorted academics of all flavors can be a challenge if you are too busy to wait. Workaholics in the know call ahead with their orders and to be placed on the waitlist for the fastest turnaround. Those who are even more rushed may avail themselves of the carry-out option, especially good for those summer month impromptu picnics in the Park Blocks.
The place is pretty busy on Friday and Saturday nights – reservations aren’t yet required but are strongly suggested. Their popularity has led Baan Thai to consider expanding and plans are currently in the works to add a few more tables to the restaurant, so don’t be surprised if things open up a little more in the future.
One of the most significant reasons why the West Coast food scene is so dynamic is the large number of Asian immigrants who have chosen to settle here. Other parts of the world still view green curry as exotic. Here, we have the chance to eat the best curries, cooked in an authentic manner by people who have eaten this food since childhood. That’s Portland, in so many ways – our comfort food is other people’s rare treat.