2501 University Drive
Durham, NC 27707
Review Date: April 30, 2009
Reviewers: Michael Pocinki, Lucy M., Amanda Newman, MeBette E., John C., Kristine C., John Davis, Jody Hamilton-Davis, Christine S., Denee B., Judy Glasser, Jo Pelligra, Teri Beckman.
Driving from Chapel Hill toward downtown Durham, on Highway 15-501 Business, one passes many ghosts from the past, beginning with what used to be South Square Mall (now various big box stores such as Target and Sam's Club). Across the road, there is an empty building vacated years ago by Macaroni Grill restaurant (soon to re-open as Shabu Shabu Restaurant, a well regarded Thai/Japanese restaurant that we will no doubt review in the near future).
A few blocks farther along, one finds an abandoned car dealership, a razed lot once occupied by Yorktowne movie theater, etc. Two structures along this route that used to house a McDonald's and a KFC now feature independent restaurants. Change can be good...
Where 15-501 Business dead ends into University Drive, there is a small strip shopping center that contains Thai Cafe, the restaurant we reviewed on a comfortably warm April evening. According to reviewer Lucy, this place is busy whenever she drives by. Tonight, a Thursday, it is half full.
There are 13 of us present for this review, and we had to wait only about 15-20 minutes for our food to arrive after ordering. Drinks took a bit longer to arrive than some of us would have liked.
The menu is, for the most part, vegetarian friendly, but more in the entree part of the menu than in the starter sections (Appetizers, Soups and Salads). Amanda was "very disappointed" that "none of the salads are vegan. Only one is vegetarian." However, the restaurant redeemed itself for Amanda with its Spicy Coconut Soup (with tofu), which she described as "wonderful." Kristine found her "Crispy Fried Tofu" appetizer to be "very good," with a "great" (sweet and sour peanut) sauce. Jo wished for vegetarian pot stickers, but alas, only meat ones are offered.
Though there are few vegetarian appetizers offered (just 2 out of 14), the entree section of the menu has many vegetarian options. There is a Curry section, from which one can select from several curries and add tofu or a meat to it. The Stir Fry and Noodles/Rice sections work the same way – choose a dish and then add tofu or a meat to it--the former section having 10 choices and the latter having 7 choices. Prices for those entrees mentioned above are in the $10.95-13.95 range. The back page of the menu offers higher priced Special Entrees, none of which are vegetarian.
As with any Thai restaurant, vegetarians must be sure to request "no fish sauce"; and vegans should stress "no dairy." Jody passed on (TVS president) Dilip Barman's warning that some Thai restaurants add regular (cow's) milk to dishes containing coconut milk. Our waiter seemed to understand and appreciate our vegan/vegetarian needs, though his somewhat joking manner made me a bit wary of how seriously he was taking our requests. Others liked his sense of humor.
Four of us ordered the "Veggie Medley" (with added tofu) from the Stir Fry Entrees section of the menu, at $10.95. For this dish, and for most others, the presentation was great. One thing that sets Thai Cafe apart for me is the unusual, appealing sauces that come on their stir fry dishes. The "Veggie Medley" is no exception. In addition, the tofu had a nice taste – not overly deep fried or battered. I requested steamed tofu, but that option was not available. Three of the four who ordered this dish thought it was a bit too salty. "Well cooked" vegetables was a compliment put forth by several reviewers.
John and Kristine ordered Pad Thai. Both were displeased enough to comment that they would not order it again. Kristine said, "The noodles were clumped together."
Jody enjoyed her "Drunken Noodles" dish: "spicy and very tasty." Portion sizes are quite generous, especially in the case of the noodle dishes.
Christine was pleased with "the moderate heat and full flavor" of her Panang (red curry) dish. Lucy did not enjoy her Yellow Curry (with added tofu) as much as she has on previous visits to Thai Cafe. Denee also ordered the Yellow Curry (with added tofu). She loves Thai food, but found the food at Thai Cafe just "okay," not to mention "a bit pricey."
The restaurant is one large, open room, which helps contribute to the loudness that several reviewers pointed out. At the same time, Lucy and several others noticed the lack of background music. Thanks to John for noting the cloth napkins: "always a plus," in his words. I agree; and I also appreciated the very hot tap water in the rest room. Jo liked the large windows with open shades, which she thought "made it feel more like we were eating outdoors."
For dessert, the Thai Cafe menu lists just two items: Homemade Creme Brulee and Homemade Coconut Cake. I was pleasantly surprised that our waiter asked, at the end of our meal, if we wanted dessert: In my experience, that happens rarely in Asian restaurants. That is, at most restaurants, after dinner, waiters will show off a dessert tray or try to push diners to order any of half a dozen sweet treats. But at Asian restaurants at which I've dined, waiters rarely suggest dessert. In contrast, our waiter at Thai Cafe suggested dessert and even mentioned "Mango Sticky Rice" as an additional dessert option (additional beyond those listed on the menu): Several faces lit up at the mention of "Mango Sticky Rice." Two of us ordered it. I loved it, especially the perfectly ripe mango: a bit steeply priced at $5.50, but nevertheless worth trying at least once. I am fairly sure the Mango Sticky Rice is vegan, but I can't say for certain.
Our wait service seemed to fall down somewhere in the middle of dinner: surprising considering that our waiter had told us that we were his only table. Several reviewers noted that he neglected to check in with us after our food was served to see if we were happy. Later, as Kristine noted, "It took a long time to get the checks and then to have them picked up." The restaurant was able to do separate checks for us, and added on an automatic 18% gratuity (which might help to explain the less-than-attentive service).
I have enjoyed the several meals I have had at Thai Cafe. I was surprised that our reviewers were not more enthusiastic. Still, the restaurant curried favor with most of our reviewers in one way or another and has much to recommend it, if you order carefully. Though located at the end of the road, Thai Cafe is certainly not a dead end for vegetarians.