Hidden in the back of a used car lot across from Depew High School, Thai House does not yield its secrets easily. Open the menu and you’ll find most of the dishes you see on every Thai menu in town.
Press on to discover this family restaurant’s Burmese heart, and your persistence will be rewarded. Chef-owner Kyaw Soe Kyaw delivers a consistent crop of Burmese, Thai and Malaysian dishes with precise technique, healthy portions and bright flavors. Add swift service and family friendly prices, and Thai House is an Asian gem worth discovering in the wilds of Depew.
“Is it open?” Cat asked.
We saw auto-lot flags flapping in the breeze and one car that did not appear to be for sale. We waited for our guests to arrive, and inside, became the second table occupied in the nearly empty room.
Since Thai cuisine isn’t rare around here, I was more intent on exploring the restaurant’s Burmese offerings. Kyaw is from Burma, with a stop in Malaysia, and formerly cooked at Sun Restaurant Buffalo, the area’s first Burmese restaurant.
Among the appetizers, we asked for steamed chicken dumplings ($5.99), crispy eggplant ($4.99) and coconut shrimp ($6.99).
We also chose tea leaf salad ($6.50), mango salad ($7.99) and samusa soup ($5.50).
For main dishes, we ordered own no koksware ($7.50), which is coconut chicken noodle soup with hard-boiled egg and crispy noodles. Another Burmese entrée was chicken rice in clay pot ($11.99), a rice casserole with tender chicken, cashews and caramelized shallots.
We asked for two Thai dishes, pad kee mow, which is sautéed flat rice noodles with vegetables, basil and sweet soy sauce ($11.99 with shrimp), and Panang coconut curry with vegetables and chicken ($9.99). There also was a special of nasi ayam, a roasted half chicken with Malaysian rice and house-made sauce ($11.99).
The steamed dumplings were plump but plain. The coconut shrimp, five to an order, were decently crispy but not as exuberantly coconut-clad as Sun’s. The crispy eggplant, discs of Japanese eggplant dipped in batter and fried, were moderately greasy yet surprisingly tasty, considering their stout batter coats.
The tea leaf and mango salads were delicious riots of texture and flavor. Tea leaf salad uses pickled tea leaves as a vegetable, tossed with crunchy fried beans, peanuts, chopped cabbage, tomato and sesame seeds in a tangy lime dressing. The mango salad was built with match-sticked crunchy green mango, carrot and cucumber in a creamy peanut dressing topped with more chopped roasted peanuts.
The samusa soup featured a fried pastry stuffed with spiced potato, an analogue to the Indian samosa. It was broken open in a bowl of soothing lentil soup perked up with citrus and cilantro, a terrific little vegan snack best eaten before the crispy pastry sogs.
Served with a side of sliced onion and lime wedge, own no koksware is Burmese chicken noodle soup, creamy with coconut milk and golden with turmeric. Its depths hold lo mein gauge egg noodles, tender chunks of dark meat chicken, and sliced hard-boiled eggs. It is topped with a jumble of crispy noodles.
The chicken rice arrives in a scorchingly hot clay pot, so hot that some of the fragrant rice sticks to the sides and bottoms, to be pried off later as chewy morsels. The chicken is tender, and between the plentiful cashews and sweet caramelized shallots and rice perfumed with spices, it’s an endearing dish. It comes with a fresh condiment of cucumber, cilantro and onion, for topping. The biryani-like rice and condiment’s fish sauce dressing are a good example of Burmese cuisine’s Indian and Thai inflections.
The nasi ayam chicken special was a casual work of art. A mostly deboned half-chicken boasted a marvelously browned skin over moist meat, spiced and fried into a savory foundation for an addictive sesame gravy. A dome of white rice was cooked in chicken stock, lightly wok-tossed and shot through with toasted garlic and ginger. Soy caramel and sweet chile dipping sauces expanded the flavor range exponentially. It was a Malaysian spin on a venerated Chinese chicken dish, Hainanese chicken rice. I never understood the attraction until Kyaw’s arrived.
Pumpkin curry is another Burmese specialty, slabs of gourd presented in a mild curry gravy. It’s a hearty vegan entree that can be fortified with meat or seafood ($9.99, $11.99 with shrimp). The pumpkin was denser than potato but dissolved in my mouth.
The Thai dishes were better than average. Panang curry was outstanding, plentiful, tender chicken and a jumble of zucchini, red peppers, snap peas and carrots in a vibrantly spicy coconut cream. The fried noodle dish was a smoky heap of singed sweet rice pasta, scallions, toasted shallots and fat shrimp, albeit a touch greasy.
There are desserts to be reckoned with at Thai House, too. The Thai taro custard ($5.50) was thick, starchy and sweet. Sticky rice with custard ($5.50) is a layer of sweet white rice topped with less-sweet, eggy custard. Black sticky rice coconut ($4.99) is chewy black rice, nuttier like wild rice, in sweet coconut milk topped with cubes of sweet potato.
Fried sweet banana ($4.99) was six parcels of ripe banana encased in thin pastry and fried to a crisp, with sweet coconut dipping sauce. The pastry wrapper was an upgrade from the usual tempura treatment.
The craziest one is mont pat toke ($4.99). That’s three parcels of Burmese sticky rice with fresh sweet coconut, steamed in banana leaves. Unwrapped, I found a gummy capsule of pounded glutinous rice shot through with crunchy strands of fresh coconut. There was no elegant way to eat it, dipped in the dish of coconut cream. But once I got past the stickiness, and tablemates’ jokes about alien eggs, it was an oddly satisfying chew, a tropical treat.
Our server was attentive. The chef knows what he’s doing. Thai House looks like a shabby jalopy from the curb, but it’s a souped-up gem with power under the hood.
Thai House: 8 Plates (Out of 10)
Great deals on Asian classics abound at restaurant hidden in used car lot.
WHERE: 5246 Transit Road, Depew (601-7865, www.depewthaihouse.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $4.99-$6.99; soup, $3.99-$11.99; entrees, $6.99-$19.99.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.