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Review: Thai @Main Street serves generous selection of Thai favorites, and some surprises

Thai@Main Street’s Tilapia Khao Soi under specialities is a yellow curry noodle.
Thai@Main Street’s Tilapia Khao Soi under specialities is a yellow curry noodle. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Could they have possibly come up with a more generic name? I confess that was my first thought on learning about a new restaurant called Thai @Main Street.

Then it occurred to me: Thai restaurants are invariably located in strip malls. Why not use your name to tout a feature that sets you apart from the crowd? Especially when the Main Street in question is in the foodie mecca that is downtown Durham? And your specialty is a cuisine that has so far been missing from that district’s menu of dining options?

The name and address have proved to be a winning combination, as Thai @Main Street has quickly established itself as a popular destination. Heavy foot traffic no doubt gets a lot of credit for bringing in first-time visitors. But it’s the food — a well-executed offering that includes a generous selection of Thai favorites as well as a few pleasant surprises — that brings them back.

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Thai@Main Street delivers a well-executed offering that includes a generous selection of Thai favorites as well as a few pleasant surprises. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The restaurant’s vibrant green papaya salad, riddled with snap-tender green beans, cherry tomatoes, julienne carrots and peanuts, is the best rendition of this popular Southeast Asian dish I’ve had in recent memory. You’ll find it under the Thai Garden heading, along with other classics such as pork larb (very good, I just wish it came with lettuce leaves for picking up and eating the traditional way) and a beef salad remarkable for its exceptionally tender beef.

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Under the Appetizer heading, you won’t go wrong with coconut milk-marinated, charbroiled chicken satay. And if you’re into skewered fare, by all means consider doubling down with an order of street meatballs.

Fresh rolls, their filling of shrimp, roast pork, cucumber, basil and lettuce leaves showing in pastel shades of pink and green through still-supple rice paper wrappers, are clearly made to order and another winning starter. I haven’t had the Bangkok wings yet, but wished I had ordered them when I saw them served at a neighboring table the last time I visited.

At first blush, the entree selection appears limited, with only seven listings in the category. Once you multiply that number by eight (the number of protein options, including all the usual suspects plus tofu, mixed vegetables, squid and scallops) and factor the range of heat levels you can specify, you get — well, I’ll leave it to a math major to calculate the possibilities.

Coconut curries account for nearly half the list. Judging by the two I’ve sampled — red curry, redolent of basil and tropical spices, and a creamy Massaman curry with cashews, potatoes, onions and tender petals of lean beef — I think it’s safe to say you won’t go wrong with a curry.

Beef with basil sauce won’t let you down, either. Nor will pad thai, if you elect to jump over to the Noodles section for your main course. In that same section, old-fashioned street noodles — barbecue pork and pickled daikon served over chewy-tender egg noodles in a mild earthy broth — are a gratifying change of pace.

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34th Street soft shell crab is named for a street in Bangkok where it originated - and where Thai@Main Street’s owner Jay Aparoj was born - the dish serves up the lightly breaded quasi-crustacean in a rich, complex variation on a basil sauce. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

If it’s change of pace you’re after, you’ll find the mother lode under the Main Street Specialties heading. How about lightly battered fried chicken, topped with Panang curry (think red curry but milder and thicker, with peanuts)? Or SangSom duck (one of three duck options), which gets its name for the Thai molasses rum that’s a key flavor element in the dish? Or Seafood @Main Street, a lavish red curry loaded with jumbo shrimp, squid, scallops and bite size morsels of fish filet?

Location notwithstanding, the restaurant’s decor — warmly welcoming but simply furnished, with canvas-mounted Bangkok cityscape panels on walls painted in alternating bands of sunny yellow and dove gray — would be just as at home in a strip mall as in downtown Durham. Just inside the entrance is a chalkboard, where a dozen or so additional temptations (the list appears to be permanent) include Thai beef jerky, fish with tamarind sauce (highly recommended; opt for the catfish rather than tilapia), and a couple of desserts, including Thai crepes (roti) and homemade coconut cake.

At the top of the list is an entree called 34th Street soft shell crab. Named for a street in Bangkok where it originated — and where owner Jay Aparoj was born — the dish serves up the lightly breaded quasi-crustacean in a rich, complex variation on a basil sauce. Aparoj emigrated to New York with his family as a young boy, and from there to North Carolina as a 14-year-old. He worked in family-owned restaurants before opening Bangkok 54 nearly a decade ago in Chapel Hill. Aparoj teamed up with three longtime friends to open Thai @Main Street last May in the former Dame’s Chicken and Waffles spot.

Fans of Bangkok 54 will recognize 34th Street soft shell crab as a variation on 34th Street catfish, which has become something of a signature dish at that restaurant. Like Thai @Main Street, Bangkok 54 owes part of its name to its location on Highway 54 in — what else? — a strip mall.

Thai @Main Street

317 W. Main St., Durham

919-219-7444

thaiatmainstnc.com

Cuisine: Thai

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: casual, simply furnished but welcoming

Noise level: low

Service: friendly, attentive, efficient

Recommended: green papaya salad, fresh rolls, street meatballs, curries, Seafood @Main Street, fish in tamarind sauce, 34th Street soft shell crab

Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; limited street parking, additional parking in lot behind the restaurant on Ramseur Street.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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