On one side of the cute and tidy room, a muted “Bassmaster” fishing show was playing. On the other side were statuettes of Garuda, a creature featured in Southeast Asian myths. The semiotic message was as potent as the flavors on my plate. Here, blissfully escapist American entertainment seamlessly coexists with a chimerical figure widely known as a symbol for Thailand. Welcome to Erawan, where authentic Thai food is served in an intimidation-free zone.
Cooking Thai food is like wrestling an octopus: There’s a lot to keep track of. Erawan distinguishes itself by taming the cuisine’s famously spicy, aromatic, sour, sweet and creamy ingredients with uncommon balance and nuance.
Belying its drab strip-mall location, the restaurant is appealing inside. Part of its draw is owner Kevin Souimaniphanh, who wields a “loosen-up” sense of humor. For instance, when I asked how his family landed in Columbus after moving from Thailand to Maine, he shrugged and said, “Got lost?” I also overheard him receiving quizzical new customers with “Welcome to McDonald’s!” In addition to free comedy, comfortable and roomy Erawan offers Vietnamese food (I stuck with the Thai selections), wood paneling, a few tasteful decorations and a hut-like structure with bar seating.
Erawan doesn’t offer alcohol, but try a delicious Thai iced tea ($3). Thickened with condensed milk, the tangerine-colored and mildly floral drink is strong, creamy and sweet, and complements Erawan’s intensely flavored dishes.
Sip it with the fiery and fantastic Som Tum ($7; $1 for the recommended crushed peanut upgrade). A classic starring unripe shredded papaya, Erawan’s no-training-wheels version is pungent with fish sauce, awash in lime juice, popping with garlic and exploding with chilies. Providing sporadic heat-relief are tomatoes, raw cabbage and a measured sweetness.
Erawan’s complex Tom Kha soup ($5, with tender white meat chicken and mushrooms) is similarly one of the best. Unlike many, it expertly counterbalances lemongrass, galangal, onion, chili and citrus in a restrained coconut milk creaminess.
Crunchy textures are available in the solid Erawan Platter ($8), a fun if less stimulating appetizer. All those pu pu platter-type favorites show up, like spring rolls, seared chicken and beef skewers, fried shrimp and fried dumplings.
Also relatively mild is a habit-forming Thai street food staple, Erawan’s terrific Holy Basil ($10, with tons of lean ground chicken). It’s a Chinese-style stir-fry flavored by a light gravy that’s peppery, soy sauce-salty, slightly sweet and punctuated with garlic. When eaten in authentic Thai style — layered with steamed rice and a crispy fried egg ($1 supplement) — it’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Erawan’s Thai curries are among the best around. The sweeter and not completely incendiary Panang version provides an easy entry into the form. Another plus: Erawan’s red curry paste-ignited Panang style curry is rife with fresh vegetables (zucchini, bok choy, green beans, carrots and bell peppers) that aromatize its positively drinkable coconut milk-soothed sauce. Priced by protein choice, my only complaint was that my beef pieces ($9.50) were intermittently chewy.
Cow meat fared better in Erawan’s gloriously volatile Num Tok ($11). A hallmark of any accomplished Thai kitchen, it’s a spicy and limey grilled steak salad that uses cilantro stems and onions as a base. The wonderful “je ne sais quoi” crackle comes from toasted ground rice. Hint: this goes great with sticky rice.
So does Erawan’s oceanic version of the salad, Yum Seafood ($14), which is even better. A wealth of gently steamed, warm sea critters — supple cuttlefish, massive mussels, fresh-tasting shrimp — get energized by licorice-y Thai basil, lemongrass, chilies, ginger, citrus and whiffs of fish sauce. Just the right amount of sweetness puts the flavors into focus. And, characteristic for high-achieving Erawan, they play together harmoniously.