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In a Crowded Landscape, Thai Kitchen in Lakewood Dishes Up Authenticity 

Pick up any Thai restaurant menu in town and you're bound to see the same collection of popular chestnuts trotted out time and time again. That's not the case at Thai Kitchen in Lakewood, home to Chef Kwan and her lengthy roster of authentic restaurant-style and home-style Thai dishes. A graduate of one of Bangkok's top culinary arts programs, Kwan boldly and unequivocally sets herself apart from the rest of the field.

"This is the most authentic Thai restaurant in Cleveland," she proudly states. "We have dishes on the menu that you will not find anywhere else."

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Diners reward restaurants like Thai Kitchen and operators like Kwan, which is why this buried treasure has thrived for 20 years despite a Lilliputian footprint that constricted diners and cooks alike. The Birdtown restaurant originally was opened by Kwan's cousin, Jum, who retired in 2010. Since that time, the chef has nearly doubled the size of the menu and doubled the size of the restaurant. This past January, the owners expanded into the adjacent space, allowing them to build a bright and roomy new seating area that increased the number of chairs from 12 to 28 while offering views of the greatly enlarged open kitchen.

If your favorite Thai restaurant doesn't offer the customary array of condiments with meals, perhaps you should consider finding a new one. These four-compartment caddies are like the salt and pepper of Thai dining, allowing diners to customize dishes to suit their tastes. Kwan offers up small containers of pickled chiles in vinegar, roasted hot chile powder, Thai chile flakes in oil, and a sweet and spicy concoction with fish sauce.

In the starter department, there's the intriguing sounding pickled mustard green soup ($3.50), a tart and tangy brew normally containing pork, but here also offered with chicken or tofu. Even familiar sounding dishes like the popular tom yum soup ($3.99) don't taste at all familiar. Far from the one-dimensional versions that taste only of coconut milk, Kwan's broth is tropical and creamy, but also bright and bursting with lemongrass and lime. The bowl is filled with poached sliced shrimp, shredded cabbage and mushrooms.

There might not be a more refreshing hot-weather dish than Kwan's green papaya salad ($8.99). Served in a deep mortar (sans pestle), ribbons of crisp papaya are tossed in a tart and spicy dressing sweetened with a touch of palm sugar and garnished with roasted peanuts. Every diner should try it. Longtime fans of Thai food might discover that some of their favorite dishes are prepared differently here than at other establishments. The chef's Thai beef salad ($12.99), for example, is not a toss of rare sliced beef and crisp greens in a cool, tart and bracing dressing. This version, from Thailand's northeastern regions, involves cooking the beef in a hot dressing. Personally, I prefer the former.

One of the dishes rarely seen outside of Thailand, notes Kwan, is a Burmese-style pork curry dish ($10.99) from Chiang Mai called hung leh (H5 on the menu). The rich, robust and silky sauce is loaded with tender pieces of pork and benefits from a housemade curry paste. Like most of the dishes served here, there's an appropriate (read, "aggressive") amount of heat. Curry (and heat) lovers should explore all of Kwan's curries, which range from the mild and mellow massaman to the explosive "jungle curry." All can be made with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or tofu.

If you took Kwan's heavenly tom yum soup and added a tangle of chewy egg noodles, crisp-tender cauliflower and broccoli, and a heaping dose of red curry, you'd wind up with coconut curry noodle soup ($12.49). Served in a large bowl, and available with shrimp, chicken, pork, beef or tofu, the dish bounces between sweet and heat in that classic Thai fashion.

For dessert, the chef peels and dices ripe, fragrant mango and pairs it with sweetened black sticky rice ($4.99). Or, if you're feeling brave, consider giving the durian fruit a try.

Describing the old setup, where a cramped dining room encircled the petite kitchen, Kwan says she and her coworkers felt like "sardines in a can." Not only was the arrangement physically unworkable on busy nights when take-out orders were flying in, but it was artistically stifling. This cheery new kitchen acts like a pressure relief valve that should enable Chef Kwan to continue cooking for many more years.

Thai Kitchen

12210 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-226-4450

Thaikitchenlakewood.com

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