Sunday, April 14, 2013

Finally found some decent Thai food... in Vienna!

I bemoaned Bratislava's woeful lack of good Thai food in this post, in which I reviewed the city's two (yes, there are only two) Thai restaurants. You may also recall that we had bad experiences with Thai food in Prague as well. We figured Vienna would be the next city to target as there are a number of Thai restaurants there, and some helpful reviews on Trip Advisor allowed us to narrow our search. We decided to go with a place that several reviewers dubbed "the best and most authentic Thai food in Vienna", which turned out to be a strange little hole in the wall called Sri Thai Imbiss, located in a mellow borough southeast of the historical center. But one thing that nearly every reviewer warned about was that the chef/owner of the establishment, a woman who looks to be in her 60s, has apparently earned a reputation for being the Thai version of the soup nazi from Seinfeld. Needless to say, we had to check this place out.

The restaurant was easy to spot with its rather unsubtle signage, which was visible from three blocks away. Amusingly, the soup nazi vibe greets you right away at the front door, where there are signs posted in German exclaiming, "no loud laughing!!!" You can see more of these signs around the dining area and on every table. Apparently the chef/owner goes into a blind rage if any of her customers erupt into loud, joyous outbursts of laughter, and the signs on the tables note that laughing out loud is inconsiderate to the other customers who are trying to enjoy their meal, and will not be tolerated. Several Trip Advisor reviews mention this, and a few reviewers even claim to have been 86'd from the place for laughing.

We got there right when they opened at 6PM, and the alleged curry nazi chef greeted us warmly from her kitchen area with a big smile when we entered. The kitchen couldn't have been much more than 6 feet away from the entrance, which in the US would probably violate local public health codes. She only had one other person working with her, a frazzled but friendly assistant who waited tables and helped with some of the food preparation. The place had a grand total of four tables, two of which had reserved signs on them.

The brightly lit dining area was a bit worn around the edges and cluttered with ornate and gilded Thai paraphernalia, and one entire wall was given over to portraits and garish artistic renderings of Thailand's king and queen. The look of this place immediately made us feel like we were back in San Francisco in some hole-in-the-wall Thai or Vietnamese restaurant on Clement St. Strangely, the decor in all of the Thai places we've tried in Bratislava and Prague was excessively posh, replete with swanky dark teak furniture and chi-chi looking dishware designed to appeal to insecure yuppies. But at Sri Imbiss, we felt right at home.

We started off with the tom ka gai, or chicken coconut milk soup, which she made entirely from scratch! In fact, she made every one of our dishes to order (no heating up pots full of pre-cooked shlop here), which meant we had an agonizingly long wait for each item. The soup itself took 45 minutes from the time we ordered it, but it turned out to be worth the wait. Terezia was facing the kitchen area, so she was able to watch the chef work her magic. The curry nazi was banging and chopping away the whole time (sometimes making it difficult for us to converse over the cacophony), and Terezia could see her chopping up every ingredient and adding it to the soup, including an array of fresh herbs and aromatics. When the soup finally arrived, we were immediately transported to tom ka gai heaven. The flavors were intense, the lemongrass packed a serious punch, and the abundant fresh cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, and galanga root really elevated the dish; a perfect and complex blend of sweet and sour. This was some of the best tom ka gai either of us had ever had, and we savored every spoonful. This was the real deal.

When I ordered the green curry chicken for my entree, the server warned me that it was very, very spicy, and asked if I perhaps wanted to reconsider. "Bring it on", I insisted. I have a pretty high tolerance for spicy food, and I wanted to see if this was the real thing. Terezia ordered the pad thai.

When I took my first small, cautious bite of green curry, I realized right away that - holy shit - the waitress was not messing around. This was some seriously spicy, mouth-on-fire curry, and the spiciness was about at the upper limit of what I can handle; trust me, this stuff would make most people wilt. But it was also incredibly good. If anything, it was probably spicier than it needed to be. A good curry has to be spicy, but it also needs to have a pleasing, rich, complex flavor. But excessive spiciness can overpower the flavors and they can get a bit lost, which was almost kind of happening here. Still, I appreciated the fact that I'd finally found a Thai restaurant on this continent that knows what good curry is, and isn't afraid to crank up the heat.

The green curry chicken. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me at the restaurant, so this is a photo I took of the leftovers the next day. 

Terezia's pad thai was quite good, with a very pronounced peanut flavor. It was rich and filling, and the fresh bean sprouts on top gave it a nice bit of crunch. The only thing it lacked was cilantro, which some places add to their pad thai to brighten it up a bit. But the shrimp weren't overcooked and the whole thing was pretty rich and full-flavored. Somewhat annoyingly, Terezia's pad thai came out about 15 minutes after my green curry. It wasn't a huge deal, since we were sharing anyhow, but we realized the reason for this was because the curry nazi was making one dish at a time. Terezia found this to be hugely amusing, since she is a professional chef and all, and as such is quite used to multi-tasking and making several dishes simultaneously.

The pad thai. Again, no camera at the restaurant, so this is a photo of the leftovers. 

As other people started filtering in, we noticed some strange things going on when food was being ordered. A table of four close to us was discouraged from ordering a couple of items that they'd initially wanted, and the harried waitress kind of aggressively pushed the green curry chicken and pad thai on to them. With these folks, however, she played down the spiciness of the curry, and we realized that what was happening here was that we, being the first ones to order, basically set the tone for the evening with our orders. By that I mean, when she made our dishes, she made enough for several people, and then had her assistant really try and push those dishes onto the other patrons who came in after we did. Of course, when the table of four got their green curry, it was fun to see them react to how intensely spicy it was. The two guys in the party suddenly began breaking out in a sweat and gulping down their beer.

At any rate, despite the quirks and the higher than average (for Thai food) prices, we would definitely go back. The food was excellent and authentic, and the curry nazi was actually quite friendly throughout the entire evening, and never once lived up to her evil reputation on Trip Advisor. She gave us a very warm and appreciative goodbye on the way out and even reached over the counter to shake our hands. I'm just bummed that we have to trek all the way out to Vienna to find some good Thai food.

So, Thai restaurants in Bratislava and Prague, please take note: if you want to be taken seriously, I highly suggest that you take a trip over to Vienna and learn from this lady!

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