Sawasdee Thai Restaurant
6204 Glenwood Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27612
Review Date: September 17, 2010
Reviewers: Donna Allison, George A., John D., Rima Fakhoury, Jody H-D, Stephen Kraus, Lucy Moore, Ron Neumann, Shreya P., Michael Pocinki, Nick V., Ricki Z.
Sawasdee. What does it mean? According to the website www.babylon.com, "Sawasdee" is a Thai greeting that "consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion." But one would not know that from the restaurant's menu, which offers no introductory or explanatory remarks other than to say that the dishes contain natural ingredients and no MSG. The restaurant's website offers much more of a welcome and introduction to Sawasdee than I received from either the employees or the menu.
In my many years of attending, organizing, and writing vegetarian restaurant reviews for the Triangle Vegetarian Society (TVS), I have never observed quite so negative a reaction to a restaurant as was displayed by our reviewers at Sawasdee, a Thai restaurant located on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. Sawasdee has a second location on Capital Boulevard -- we reviewed the one on Glenwood.
That negative reaction is all the more surprising given that Sawasdee came highly recommended by several members of our regular group of reviewers. Of the 12 reviewers who attended this review, only 3 or 4 were fully satisfied with their meals. Several were so unhappy that they had to send back their food.
I enjoyed walking into the restaurant on a hot day and not being blasted by cold air conditioning, as most establishments are wont to do in this part of the country. But I cannot say I felt welcomed in any other way. No one at the restaurant was particularly friendly, nor did anyone express any interest or enthusiasm about our being a large group of vegetarian diners. I did not inform this restaurant that we were a group of restaurant reviewers, so the employees did not possess that piece of information -- but they did know that we were all vegetarian.
I got the sense, both from my phone calls and our in-person visit, that no one at the restaurant is very proficient with English. When, for instance, I called to confirm our reservation, I asked if the restaurant was located in "Pleasant Valley Promenade" shopping center. The person with whom I spoke did not know, telling me instead that Sawasdee was located across from Golden Corral, behind a gas station. Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to the restaurant and saw on the wall of the building the big letters "Pleasant Valley Promenade" right above the name of the restaurant.
Of the 9 appetizers on the menu, only 3 are vegetarian. Jody ordered the "Fresh Spring Rolls" (two rolls for $5.50), but she did not provide any specific feedback about them on her review sheet. Shreya described them as "good." Lucy ordered the same item and found them to be "very pretty, but plain." She did like the sauce that accompanied them. The "Fresh Spring Rolls" are described on the menu as "fresh salad rolls with shrimps with a special brown sauce topped with ground peanuts." There is a vegetarian version available, which is what our reviewers ordered.
Sawasdee also offers "Fried Spring Rolls" (two rolls for $3.50). This item is a "crispy-fried mixed vegetable roll with light sweet chili sauce topped with ground peanuts." John ordered those, and found them "fine but not exceptional."
Ron ordered the other vegetarian appetizer, "Tofu Tod" ($3.50), which is "deep-fried tofu with our mildly spicy sweet and sour sauce topped with ground peanuts." According to Lucy, Ron enjoyed this dish (Ron offered no commentary about this item on his review sheet).
Of the three soups on the menu (all of which are marked as being spicy), two can be made vegetarian: Tom Yum and Tom Kha. Though Ron provided no written details about his meal, I learned from those sitting by him that he ordered a cup of (vegetarian) soup that turned out to contain chicken instead of tofu -- not what one would hope for from a waitress who is serving a table full of vegetarians.
Unlike other restaurant menus that I've seen, Sawasdee's menu includes a Vegetarian section that repeats vegetarian items that appear in other parts of the menu, as well as listing some additional vegetarian choices. There are about 14 vegetarian entrees from which to choose -- a fairly substantial number compared to most local restaurants. I am glad to see Sawasdee's website menu includes the following note: "Most of our dishes can also be prepared to your vegetarian choice, please ask your server. Please request if you prefer no egg or non-meat products in your vegetarian dish." If only that note were included in the actual menu we were given when we were dining, or on the take-out menu I picked up by the door, I might have rated Sawasdee's vegetarian sensitivity more highly.
Some menu items are marked with a small red heart. One would think such a symbol is meant to connote that a dish is heart healthy, but instead it denotes a dish that is a favorite of the restaurant's patrons. I wonder how many patrons order those items thinking that they are getting healthier fare -- not having read the fine print at the bottom of the menu. Add this problem to the list of communication/language issues I observed at Sawasdee.
All vegetarian entrees are $10.99-12.99, while meat entrees are $13.99-17.99. All come with white rice (steamed Jasmine rice), except for the noodle dishes: We found that out by experience rather than via any note to that effect on the menu.
Many menu items are marked with a red asterisk to indicate "spicy." I missed the asterisk when I ordered "Pad Khing Tofu." So the dish was a bit spicy for me. But that was not as bothersome to me as the dish's overall unprepossessing appearance on presentation, its watery and too-sweet sauce, and its undistinguished deep-fried tofu cubes. Nor did I enjoy the occasional taste of basil I encountered in this dish. Like me, John ordered the Pad Khing Tofu. He liked it a lot more than did I, describing it as "very good." "(They are) definitely not stingy with the ginger," wrote John. John and Jody live just 5 minutes from Sawasdee and eat there regularly.
Jody ordered "Green Curry Vegetable Tofu." It contained steamed tofu. All the curry dishes at Sawasdee are marked with two asterisks (for "Extra Spicy"), at least per the take-out menu. The online menu shows just one asterisk for the Red Curry and the Panang Curry. Jody described her dish as "medium" spicy, commenting further, "Some people found the food too spicy, but mine was just right."
George also ordered the "Green Curry Vegetable Tofu." He was pleased that Sawasdee's menu contained three or four of his favorites. The dish he ordered did not have the amount of mint or coconut flavor he would have liked, but the spice level was fine. George found the vegetables in his dish to be fresh and crisp -- not overcooked.
I appreciated the vegan friendliness of the menu's note that accompanies the "Poor Man's Fried Noodles Tofu" (Vegetarian Pad Thai) and the "Drunken Noodles Vegetable Tofu": "Please request if you prefer no egg." To their chagrin, Rima and Shreya did not notice that caveat. They shared the Drunken Noodles dish. I could see from their reactions that they did not like it very much. Shreya was bothered in particular by the overabundance of egg in the dish--a dish she described as "smelly."
The waitress was understanding of the situation and brought a replacement dish -- "Mixed Vegetable Tofu." Rima liked the replacement entree, but Shreya "did not like it at all." She found the dish to be watery and the tofu very salty. Later, Shreya and I commiserated that we do not eat out too much because the food we cook at home is so much better than what we find served at most restaurants these days.
Not quite as displeased with the Drunken Noodles dish was Steve, who made no comment on it pro or con, but did clean his plate. Lucy ordered the "Mixed Vegetable Tofu," whose sauce she found "salty and sugary." She left most of her entree uneaten.
Ricki was not bothered by the egg in her "Poor Man's Fried Noodles Tofu," but she was bothered by the bits of eggshell she found therein. Rather than return her dish, she simply left most of it uneaten on her plate. Ricki wrote, "It's been better on other evenings," presumably referring to the Pad Thai.
Nick ordered the "Pra Ram Long Song Tofu (Swimming Raja)," which the menu describes as "steamed broccoli, carrot, cabbage and tofu in mildly spiced peanut sauce." According to the menu, this is a mild dish (no asterisk by its name), but Nick commented, "My selection was too spicy for my tastes."
Donna had the same problem with her dish, but to a greater extent: Her "Spicy Fried Rice Vegetable Tofu" -- "Thai Jasmine rice fried with onions, tomatoes and greens in our garlic chili sauce" -- bears just one asterisk (for "spicy") on the menu, but it was too spicy for her to eat. By process of elimination, Steve helped Donna to figure out that the vegetables in her dish were extremely spicy while the other ingredients were not too spicy. The restaurant, Donna reports, "re-did the dish 'mild' and it was fine." Donna appreciated the generous portion size.
When trying to exchange her dish for one less spicy, Donna found that the staff was not very attentive. For my part, I found the staff almost nonexistent. Though it was a Friday night, the restaurant was not overly busy. Yet our waitress never asked us if we liked our food, did not refill our waters, etc. -- at least not at my part of the table. Only because several folks literally could not eat their dishes were we able to flag down and get help from our waitress. George apparently had better service at his end of the table, commenting that the staff kept his water glass full at all times.
I was pleasantly surprised that our main dishes came out so quickly -- actually too quickly. As Steve pointed out, we should not have been served our entrees while people were still eating their appetizers.
Lucy and I have noticed that the waiters at many restaurants these days do not usually offer or suggest dessert after a meal. So we were surprised when the waitress at Sawasdee brought out a table card listing five dessert offerings -- all vegetarian (two that may be vegan). Lucy, Ricki, and I hoped to salvage this meal by ordering "Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango (Seasonal)," but, alas, it was no longer mango season, so the dish was not available. Thus, no one ordered dessert.
Though the menu suggested that we would have an 18% gratuity added to our checks due to the large size of our group, we were not in fact charged that additional amount. We got separate checks, so it was up to each individual to decide how much tip to leave.
Several reviewers commented positively on Sawasdee's surroundings. While Steve found the silverware, tables, plates, and glassware quite plain, he did enjoy the wall hangings and other unusual pieces of art, including a large, beautiful star sculpture suspended from the ceiling. Jody noted that the wall hangings and decorations help make Sawasdee "nicer than the average strip mall place." George, a carpenter by trade, thought the split bamboo on the walls and above the bar lent a nice touch to the restaurant. At the same time, he described it as having a "typical bar and grill atmosphere." Lucy appreciated the reasonable temperature and found the atmosphere "very elegant and nice."
While Steve's eye was caught by "an elaborate gold gilded temple" on entering Sawasdee, Lucy's eye was caught instead by the 94 sanitation grade notice (Wake County inspects restaurants and grades them on a scale of 70-102). She did not consider that a good omen. To be fair, I researched the Wake County sanitation grades for restaurants for the period 7/29/10 to 11/29/10: Of 1332 restaurants in Wake County, 80% received a sanitation grade of 94 or above.
A second telling omen occurred when Lucy, on first sitting down, ordered a drink from the cocktail menu called a "Purple Rain" ($8.00). Perhaps our waitress was new, or perhaps not many Prince fans frequent Sawasdee: Our waitress did not seem to know to what Lucy was referring, even though the "Purple Rain" was listed clearly on the cocktail menu.
John considers Sawasdee the "tastiest Thai in the Triangle since Taste of Thai closed." While I'm sure John and Jody will continue to patronize Sawasdee, I would venture to guess that most of the other 10 reviewers will not be dining there again anytime soon.