22 July 2009

A long-time favourite: Ban Mai Thai

To me, Thai food is comfort food. This goes way back, much earlier than recent trips to Thailand... it was the first "ethnic" cuisine I got into as a kid (not counting Japanese, which my mum cooked regularly, and maybe tied with Mexican). I always looked forward to family outings to the local Thai place, and when I was a teenager my friends and I would scrape together our spare change - enough to split a plate of pad thai noodles and maybe a satay chicken (I'm sure the waiting staff in those tip-reliant American restaurants loved our frugality).

So when I got back from overseas last week, tired after 30 hours of travelling and with hunger gnawing at my stomach, I knew just what I wanted, and headed toward Ban Mai Thai Cafe. This cute restaurant on Vivian St (with its lovely wooden carved details on the sign outside and above the counter inside) has long been my go-to for Thai in Wellington. I'm not too sure why, except that I've tried the others, and in my opinion this little place is the most consistent.

The staff were all smiles just as usual, and soon after placing our order our entree of Thai fish cakes, or tod mun pla ($7.50), arrived. They were just right - springy texture, subtly seasoned and accompanied by a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Their sauce is great - it's tangy, a little less gooey than the stuff you get out of the bottle, and has little pieces of chopped peanut in it.

We gobbled these down in no time and munched on the decoratively cut carrot too, dipping it into the remnants of the sauce. I'm sure I saw the waiter give me a slightly amused glance when he saw me chowing down on what was probably meant to be an ornamental garnish. What can I say? Long flights leave me ravenous.

The one problem with Ban Mai Thai is that it's a small place, so if there are a lot of people there, the kitchen gets busy and food takes a little longer (conversely, when it's empty, the food arrives in no time). This is fine if you're with friends as there's plenty of time for conversation, and usually I don't mind waiting since I'm hardly ever in a hurry. This time, though, I was totally zombied out (jet lag was starting to kick in) and unable to hold a conversation, which made waiting for our food a little painful.

It was well worth the wait, however. E had the nam tok ($15.50), beef salad with chilli, lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal seasoning. He must have been hungry too, because I could hardly sneak my fork across to his plate to grab a bite. I did try a little, though, and it was good - spicy, meaty, and with a good portion of crunchy vegetables such as cucumber and onion. The beef wasn't as tender as I would have liked, but the flavours were spot on.

I had the larb gai ($15.50), which has been my standard order for the last 2 years or so. It's a simple dish of minced chicken with chillies, lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal. Often in Thailand it's served with green beans mixed throughout; this version had spring onions which gave it a flavourful bite. It's a little spicy but I love the heat, and together with the steamed rice I ordered ($1.50) it disappeared in no time.

Ban Mai Thai has a pretty extensive menu, with the standard curries, fried noodles and rice, stir-fries, etc... but inevitably whenever I visit I always turn to a page near the back which features food from the northern region of Thailand. I'm not sure if this is because that's where the owners are from - I should ask next time. Anyway, this page has some gems - the nam tok and larb gai we ordered were both featured in this section. Go ahead - try something new!

RATING: 3.5/5

Ban Mai Thai Cafe
111 Vivian St
Te Aro
(04)384 4092

Open for dinner and takeaways

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