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Opinion

Mai Thai in Westmont provides a taste of Thailand without the air travel

Mai Thai Restaurant is a small, family-operated restaurant offering many of the flavors of Thailand. It’s an unassuming destination anchoring a strip mall with an eclectic collection of businesses. The interior is evenly divided between booths and free-standing tables.

You select your table, and service proceeds quickly from there. Water, menus and utensils are brought out simultaneously. For me, the slowdown occurs after I open the menu as there are lots of categories and many choices under each.

Here are some basic rules for Thai or Asian dining in general. Most dishes are meant to be shared with small plates offered through the early courses and larger plates brought out at entrée time. Most dishes can be ordered with just vegetables, or several proteins can be added such as chicken, pork, duck, beef, tofu, shrimp or a seafood mix. The spicy symbol denoted by the red pepper can be misleading as they are not relative to each dish. As most can be customized, coordinate with your server and adjust to hotter through the spicy condiment kettle on each table.

Tasters or appetizers are a good place to start. Fresh spring egg rolls are filled with tofu and scrambled eggs, along with several vegetables, before being finished with a caramelized plum sauce and julienned carrots.

Gyoza pot stickers, an Asian staple, are deep fried to a crisp finish while remaining soft and moist inside. There was no trace of oil on any fried food on all visits, a big plus. While the soy vinegar sauce is nice, adding sambal chili paste from the table-top crock takes the dipping sauce to a new level.

Fried starters have a thick corn meal-type breading, which is light and crispy. Calamari Thai-style is breaded and deep fried before being paired with a mild red chili sauce. At first glance, onion rings come to mind with the thicker coating.

Tempura also has the same thick coating and offered a nice mix of onion rings, sweet potato slices, broccoli florets, green beans and shrimp. The dish was plated with a clear sweet and sour sauce, which we finished quickly.

Several soups are available, many with protein add-ins. Tom kha with shrimp is a spicy coconut soup. Several vegetables, along with lime juice, create a refreshing blend. As the heat level on all dishes is variable and individual tastes vary, order mild, and spice to your level with the sambal chili paste.

Salads are another easily shared item. Papaya salad is a Thai menu staple and includes shredded papaya, green beans, tomatoes, carrots and peanuts for a little crunch. The lime dressing has a bit of kick while still being light and refreshing.

Nam tok, another salad option, can double as an entrée. Thinly sliced beef flavored with rice powder, onion, cilantro and chili are tossed together in a lime dressing and set atop lettuce. The citrus flavors continue to refresh your palate while the savory beef adds a complimenting flavor.

While white rice accompanies entrées, Americans have an affinity for fried rice. Mai Thai’s basil fried rice with chicken has a good Thai basil flavor, combined with a mix of chicken, basil, onion, egg, bell peppers and hot peppers. While it is good by itself, it’s even better with another sauce, perhaps one left over from a starter or accompanying your entrée. This is one of those iconic dishes that blend well with almost anything.

Broccoli features prominently in several dishes, and rama chicken has nearly a head of it. It’s a simple dish: wok-sautéed chicken breast atop the broccoli served al dente and dressed in a thick peanut sauce. The peanut sauce is smooth and provides most of the flavor for the dish.

In the seafood corner, a generous portion of salmon is glazed with teriyaki sauce before grilling. Toasted sesame seeds provide the garnish and a contrast to the sweeter glaze. The salmon is plated with broccoli florets and decoratively sliced carrots. Healthy and fresh tasting!

Curry is another staple of most Thai restaurants, and Mai Thai doesn’t disappoint. Green curry begins as a deep green color from the ground green chilis. It becomes muted in color with the addition of coconut milk, offsetting the heat. Vegetables – green beans, pea pods, onion, bell peppers, bamboo shoots and basil leaves – either by themselves or with one of the available proteins, complete the dish. Accompanying side dishes of white rice are the perfect pairing to the rich sauces of the curry corner.

Red curry follows the same track with the difference created by the taste and flavor profile of the red chili. Add ground peanuts, and the red curry becomes panang curry. The peanut flavor is muted, allowing the spice of the chili and the sweet of the coconut to provide contrasting taste sensations.

Pad kee mao with shrimp has got it all going. Wide noodles are wok cooked with mushrooms, red and green bell peppers, bean sprouts, tomatoes, onion, crispy (pop in your mouth) green beans and snow peas in a lightly seasoned sauce. I added shrimp, creating one of my favorite dishes and one I strongly recommend.

Basil eggplant is the perfect dish to stand alone. Baby eggplants are rough cut and stir fried along with scallions, red and green bell peppers, onion and jalapeno and complemented with a nice black bean garlic sauce. The sauce and vegetables are perfect atop the rice. Enjoy as a vegetarian entrée or a shared vegetable course.

Desserts are straight forward and simple. While there is ice cream and Thai custard available, my favorite is the mango and rice. Rice, coconut milk, sugar and tapioca starch are cooked together, formed into a patty, cooled and topped with a drizzle of coconut milk, sugar and sesame seeds and then paired with a whole sliced mango. Together, almost a perfect dessert!

Mai Thai’s menu is easy to navigate with full English descriptions and some photos. The staff, while not obtrusive, provide assistance as needed and will tailor heat levels for everyone at the table. There is also a strong carry-out presence, and delivery is available on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Mai Thai is a nice option for Thai food in a relaxed atmosphere. The menu is expansive, customizable and representative of the Thai culture. And a big plus…no airline ticket or hotel is required.

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If you go

WHAT: Mai Thai Restaurant
WHERE: 697 N. Cass Ave., Westmont
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
DRESS CODE: Casual
INFO: 630-455-4298; maithaiwestmont.com
RESERVATIONS: Not accepted
PARKING: Easy
WIFI: Not available
NOISE FACTOR: Hushed
PRICING: $$

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