Pad Thai once was considered an exotic dish around these parts. Today, it's practically an inalienable right, along with easy access to the restaurants that prepare it. Over the past few years, diners have watched as the ubiquitous corner Chinese takeout has been swapped out for more fashionable Thai outposts. Wonton soup has given way to tom kha gai, salty soy sauce to spicy sriracha.
How odd, then, that Ohio City — Cleveland's ethnic eats enclave — has managed to survive this long without a bona fide Thai restaurant. Thanks to Banana Blossom, that injustice has been righted, and reliably so.
Owner Amy Visatsud launched the spot late last fall inside the former Traci's-Halite-Jazz 28 space. I won't lie and say that the conversion of the formerly cozy room to the uber-casual Blossom didn't feel a bit like a demotion. Whereas the previous tenants embraced the structure's snug, lounge-like bones, the new tenant appears to be fighting it at every turn. Blinding lights illuminate every inch of the joint, making the small room feel even smaller. The gorgeous art deco bar is all but empty, sporting a few odd selections and rarely a guest. Instead of live jazz, a phone rings off the hook with takeout orders.
But that ringing might as well be the cha-ching of a cash register: a sure sign that this blossom is taking root. Is Banana Blossom the best Thai food in town? No, not yet. But with some tweaking — particularly of its sometimes timid flavor profiles — its early popularity should grow into long-term regard.
Lovers of bracing Thai salads will doubtless dig the roster here. Bold and bright, with copious amounts of citrus, mint, chiles, and fish sauce, the larb ($8.95) is a chopped chicken salad for the brave. The meat is served on a bed of cool, crisp lettuce. Similarly, the yum nua ($8.95) is a spicy, citrusy salad that swaps strips of tender grilled beef for chicken. Still other salads are made with spicy seafood and crispy fried chicken.
On the other hand, neither the tom kha gai ($3.95) nor the tom yum goong ($3.95) will earn any Best Thai Soup awards. The former lacked complexity, tasting like little more than warmed coconut milk. The latter suffered from the opposite plight: A surplus of citrus left the broth too tart. And neither soup had any heat to speak of.
We plowed through our summer rolls ($6.50), here called Garden Rolls, which arrived pre-sliced and ready for dipping. The pliant rice paper wrappers bulged with cooked shrimp, fresh herbs, lettuce, and noodles. Other popular starters include chicken or beef satay ($6.95), crispy spring rolls ($5.95/5), and sliced papaya salad ($7.95).
While we detected little elevation of the heat level, the spicy pad Thai ($11.95) is textbook. Loaded with shrimp, tofu, chicken, and egg, this version of the popular noodle dish likely will disappoint nobody. Same goes for the curries, available in multiple hues, heats, and meats. The massaman ($12.95) has a lovely balance of sweet and heat, a product of the coconut milk, peanuts, and sweet potato. Most entrées come with a choice of brown or jasmine rice.
It would take months to nibble your way through Blossom's menu of 60-plus dishes. But do not wait that long to order the hot and spicy crispy duck ($15.95), a house specialty. Imagine the southern classic smothered fried chicken, but now with fried boneless duck in the role of the featured fowl. And instead of sitting in starchy chicken gravy, the tender breaded meat is soaking in a spicy red curry sauce. This is the Thai version of comfort food. Those who like it extra hot can request a side of chile-garlic sauce.
A separate lunchtime menu includes most of the regular menu items at prices of $8.95 and $9.95. Abundant street parking makes in-and-outs a snap, and service is fast-paced enough to enjoy lunch in the dining room.
With just a little fine tuning, Banana Blossom is poised to bloom big.