Thai cuisine, when done properly, combines an ambitious variety with a trapeze artist’s sense of balance.
There are a couple of spots in town that I head to if I don’t feel like rustling up my own Thai curry at home, but it’s not like the Lansing area is a magnet for the southeast Asian cuisine. Within the last couple of years, though, downtown East Lansing has ushered in a few Thai restaurants, one of which sits along the fast-moving Grand River Avenue corridor.
No Thai! is the fourth incarnation of a fast-casual concept born in Ann Arbor, where the other three restaurants are located. Unlike other full-service Thai spots in town, at No Thai! diners order at the counter and find a seat as they await their names to be shouted when an order is ready.
As you might imagine, there’s a high energy level at No Thai!, and it works well for a college town. On our Friday evening visit, the place was crowded with students, couples on a date, a group with a contented infant and plenty of bustle.
The music is a touch too loud, the wide open kitchen shares its sizzle, clanks and steam, and diners fend for themselves on the floor. One large group rearranged half of the dining space, putting together enough tables to nearly wall off the order counter.
It’s vibrant and, for those of a certain age, nostalgic: Tunes from Aerosmith, R.E.M. and The Smiths are typical, and the mini-mural of the Atari "Asteroids" video game along the back corridor wall is the most prominent piece of décor.
Nostalgia is nice, but it won’t cook a plate of delicious pad Thai, or, as it’s known at this excitable restaurant, Pad Thai! ($8.50). (If the question crossed your mind, the answer is no, the exclamation point does not make it taste any better.)
Pad Thai is not a difficult dish to make, and it should combine a bit of tang with a gentle sweetness, brought together with vegetables, sticky rice noodles and crushed peanuts. We ordered ours with chicken at the “Yoga Flame!” spice level. Most pad Thai recipes use tamarind paste and lime to reach a nice acidity, but the flavor profile on this dish is muted. We did have a rather sad wedge of lime to squeeze atop of the meal, but the tang just didn’t get to where it needed to be.
The peanuts are perhaps my favorite part of many Thai meals, and No Thai! is not stingy with the legume. But when the nut is crushed a little too fine, like ours, a peanut butter-like effect begins to creep in, turning what should be a well-balanced dish into a lunchroom sandwich.
Along with a noodle menu, No Thai! offers a stir fry and fried rice menu. We went with the gang ped ($8.50) stir fry for our second entrée, a dish that combines eggplant, bell pepper, onion and mushroom in a curry sauce with a choice of protein — tofu, in our case.
Like the pad Thai, a good curry sauce should find a balance of flavors. Our dish was heavy on the fish and soy sauce, and so a bit too salty. My companion longed for just another teaspoon or two of sugar to balance the savory flavors.
The eggplant and tofu, ingredients designed to soak up whatever sauce they find themselves in, reiterated the off-balance curry sauce. But that wasn’t as bad as the undercooked eggplant, which took on the characteristic flavor of a scrap of wet carpet.
Unlike the eggplant, the rest of the vegetables were cooked a touch beyond that stage where they retain a nice crispness; while they weren’t terrible, they did teeter on that precipitous edge of mushiness.
While it may sound like quibbling, the white rice came off as an afterthought — still wet and, if it was jasmine, all its fragrance was steamed or boiled out.
The menu is succinct, with no dessert, only soda or Thai iced tea to drink, and three sides.
We tried the crab wontons ($4) and imagined bar-hopping crowds would be pleased with the deep-fried overstuffed cream cheese delivery system. They were tasty, with little bits of crab meat and scallions, but the plum sauce — self-served from a communal container at the order counter — somehow lacked the right mix of sweet and sour despite a mild sweetness and a heavy dose of vinegar.
No Thai! seems to be comfortable in its own digs, and that’s what seems to give it a sense of vitality. If you’re looking for a quiet spot with really great Thai food, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re a student or you’re just looking for a quick bite that goes beyond ground beef in a bun or a slice of pizza, you’ll likely appreciate both the atmosphere and relatively inexpensive tab.
403 E. Grand River Ave., East Lansing
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
TO, D, OM, $$