Sweet, Sour, Salty, Spicy and Bitter

Journey through the five flavors in all their combinations at Wilmington’s Thai restaurants

There’s comfort in a big bowl of rice. As one of the most widely consumed staples, rice provides sustenance for a large portion of the world’s population, especially in Asia, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the world’s production.

Khao, or “rice” in Thai, is also the main ingredient in many Thai dishes and preparations, whether it’s pad Thai, curry or fried rice. I recently returned from a visit to Bangkok, where I grew fond of this simple ingredient in all its forms, like rice noodles and rice paper wrappers. That fondness brought me to three local restaurants that dish up some Thai favorites — Southeast Kitchen in Trolley Square, Soybean Asian Grille off Limestone Road in Pike Creek, and Ubon Thai Cuisine on the Wilmington Riverfront.

I was aware that Thai cuisine is one of the most difficult cuisines to replicate here. We simply lack ingredients like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, and tools such as a vegetable/papaya handheld grater.

Many of the dishes I tried in Bangkok were not as recognizable or readily available in the U.S. That can’t be said for the ubiquitous pad Thai, of course. Don’t get me wrong, pad Thai is fantastic. The stir-fried rice noodle dish is comforting, filling and flavorful, but far less technical and creative than what I savored in Thailand.

The three local restaurants I visited not only highlight Thailand’s emphasis on the complexity of flavors, but also focus on one of this year’s hottest food trends: marrying disparate flavors—sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter—into a harmonious bowl of good food.

Fresh, Not Frozen

Southeast Kitchen occupies a space on the corner of Delaware Avenue and North Lincoln Street, just north of Trolley Square. It’s hard to spot, save for the distinct black-and-white-striped awning.

The restaurant is a semi-open kitchen concept—you can hear and smell your meal being prepared before it reaches the table. Chef and co-owner Hung Le is busy behind the counter preparing his handmade dumplings, made every other day to keep them fresh, never frozen. They’re filled with tender ground white chicken meat, onions, ginger and scallions, then served with a side of soy sauce laced with cilantro, scallion and ginger. The dumplings come steamed or pan-fried, so prepare to make a difficult decision. I’d recommend the pan-fried for more texture and flavor, but you can’t go wrong either way.

Chef Hung Le, co-owner of Southeast Kitchen. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

Chef Hung Le, co-owner of Southeast Kitchen. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

Le has been in the restaurant business for 29 years. He was born in Danang, Vietnam, and raised in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) until his family emigrated to the East Coast during the Vietnam War. As the eldest son, his responsibility was to support the family, who were on welfare. He worked part-time in a Philadelphia restaurant while earning his high school diploma, then attended Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia from 1993-95. Walnut Hill was one of the first colleges to focus on hospitality education. After graduation, he gained restaurant experience in both the kitchen and front-of-house.

In 2015, the owner of Southeast Kitchen was ready to sell. The three-year-old restaurant focused on smaller dishes, specialty groceries and take-out. “I came to visit the restaurant,” says Le. “I liked the town and the area [Trolley Square], but I couldn’t do it myself, so I asked my co-worker, Liem Ngo, who knew about service [to join me].”

Le has done extensive renovation work on Southeast Kitchen. The new seating area includes two handmade benches, the addition of more two- and four-person tables, and single seating at the windows to accommodate more people. This has allowed him to grow the business in the short time he has owned it.

“I’m very lucky that people like my food,” he says. “Philly is too big, Wilmington too small. In Wilmington word-of-mouth travels very fast. In Philly, word of mouth takes years to travel. After the first couple of months, people knew that there was a new owner. They’d say, ‘I’ve been here before, but I didn’t come back. And now that I hear there’s new ownership, I’m happy to be back.’”

As its name indicates, Southeast Kitchen specializes in cuisine from Southeast Asia, and the goal is to prepare a variety of dishes, such as Thai curry, from that diverse region.

Thai curries come in various colors, including red, green and yellow. In Bangkok, curries are eaten at all times of the day and are available from street food stalls to shopping malls—yes, shopping malls. The city’s malls are legendary. For example, MBK in Bangkok has some 2,000 stalls that occupy seven floors, and it has two food courts. There, diners must electronically load money onto plastic cards—think Dave and Buster’s—to purchase food from the dozens of stalls.

Fork and Spoon

It’s customary to eat most Thai dishes with a fork and spoon, a tradition that differs from the use of chopsticks that is embraced by the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. Chopsticks are available at Thai restaurants, but are mainly used when eating noodle soups —a dish brought to Thailand by Chinese immigrants. Embrace the culture and use your utensils the Thai way—spoon in your right hand, fork in your left. The fork is used to push food onto your spoon and then into your mouth. Southeast Kitchen caters to all eating customs, and will provide a spoon, fork, and chopsticks, depending on the dish ordered.

I visited Southeast Kitchen at lunchtime on a Thursday and sampled the basil and Shanghai baby bok choy with chicken. This is a dish that may become your new favorite vegetable. Juicier and more tender than the bok choy with white stems, this dish is made with chicken, baby bok choy, carrots, red pepper, onions, basil and a smoky red broth. The smokiness comes from the wok preparation, when high heat from the gas range allows food to be lightly charred, but not burned. Served with a side of rice, it’s a comforting reminder of Thailand and its many curry preparations.
For more information, see southeastkitchen.net.

Soybeans and More

Bring your appetite (and your patience) to the award-winning Soybean Asian Grille at the Pike Creek Shopping Center on Route 7. It serves lunch and dinner six days a week, and is closed on Sundays. The first time I went was on a Saturday afternoon and it was packed. Be ready to wait for your table, or order takeout in advance. Like Southeast Kitchen, this unassuming location also cranks out some of the most authentic Thai food in the region.

Soybean Asian Grille prepares all its dishes with soybean oil, which it claims to be healthier than other vegetable oil due to its high concentration of healthy fats. The menu is extensive but manageable, enabling customers to choose their protein from a long list. Lunch is a great time to visit. It’s (slightly) less busy and the specials are affordable and quick.

Dishes ranged from the colorful coconut curries to fried rice and noodle dishes. I tasted the pad prik khing, which is made with shrimp, chicken, string bean, kaffir lime leaves, and two varieties of bell pepper served with a healthy portion of jasmine rice. This surf ‘n’ turf-like dish is different from most familiar Thai curries; it’s slightly drier and does not contain coconut milk. The curry paste is made from dried Thai chilies, galangal, garlic, onion and small amounts of lemongrass, shrimp paste, and kaffir lime leaves.

The amount of each ingredient is unique to every chef, but the result is the same: an aromatic dish that encompasses the five main flavors present in all Thai dishes—sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter. It’s a touch less spicy than its traditional Thai counterparts, but that doesn’t take away from the umami (the savory taste) created by the five requisite flavors.

Bring on the Heat

In Thailand, I noticed that all restaurants had an assortment of tableside condiments, including fish sauce with chilies (prik nam pla), dried red chili peppers, sliced garlic, sugar and Thai chili sauce. These condiment sets come in many shapes and sizes, but their purpose is the same—to harmonize the aforementioned flavor profiles. Soybean Asian Grille doesn’t have the full condiment caddy, but if you ask your server for a side of “peppers,” he or she will bring a beautiful duo of dried red chili peppers and chili garlic sauce, the chunky version of Sriracha sauce. The peppers will add a new dimension to your noodle or curry dish and allow you to customize the spice level to your liking.
For more information, see soybeanasiangrille.com.

Thai on the Riverfront

Nikki Sritham of Ubon Thai holds at plate of shrimp pad Thai. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Nikki Sritham of Ubon Thai holds at plate of shrimp pad Thai. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Ubon Thai serves up comforting, homemade Thai dishes in an inviting atmosphere. The warmth in the dining room is only surpassed by the friendly wait staff. This family-owned and operated restaurant on the riverfront serves Thai dishes influenced by their homeland in Northeast Thailand. Recipes from this region, also known as Isan, have been passed down from generation to generation.

Many of the dishes have been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 2011. Neua naam tok, for instance, is a spicy steak salad made with thinly sliced flank and doused with a mouth-watering combination of shallots, tomatoes, cilantro and chili lime dressing. The finishing touch is a sprinkling of toasted rice powder, a nutty, crunchy element that makes this dish a knockout.

The fried rice is one of the most popular entrées at Ubon. “It is a great option for those looking for something familiar,” says Ubon Manager Lakia Ellerbe. “The rice is stir fried with mixed vegetables, basil, chilies, egg, and a protein. You have several options, including chicken, steak, shrimp, crab, duck, scallops and tofu for the vegetarians and vegans.”

Despite that rave review, Ellerbe admits her go-to after work dish is pan seared king (and sometimes Norwegian) salmon—not a traditional Thai dish. The filet is lightly lacquered in a chili rub made with Thai spices and herbs, then served alongside a garlic or basil sauce with a medley of vegetables and a side of jasmine rice.

Ubon presents live music on Wednesday and Sundays. Arrive early to enjoy happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., then sit back and listen to local and regional musicians play jazz, R&B and soul.

For more information, visit ubonthaicuisine.com.

All three of Wilmington’s Thai restaurants offer dishes for the daring. Some of the more adventurous treats include: pad kee mao or “drunken noodles”; Thai larb, laab, or larp (spicy ground chicken salad with chili-lime dressing); masaman curry (mild peanut curry); and tom kha gai soup (sweet and sour coconut soup).

So, what do you think? Please comment below.