You might have noticed a brand new name pop up on the local Thai restaurant scene, but the operation is anything but untested. In fact, chances are good that you've even dined with them before.
Brown Sugar Thai Cuisine emerged almost simultaneously in Rocky River and Lakewood, supplementing those neighborhoods with new full-service Thai restaurants. But owner Oh Nilsri has been opening Thai establishments locally and elsewhere for eight years. His first, Thai Blue Ginger, hit the Boston market back in 2006. Closer to home — and closer in time — the serial operator opened Sweet Mango in Berea roughly six years back. He followed that up with Wild Papaya, which opened in Kent in 2011.
Nilsri says he requires two key elements before he'll consider opening another spot: a great new location and a capable chef at his previous spot. The arrival of two promising locations at approximately the same time compelled the owner to deviate from his tried-and-true strategy.
"I usually open one every few years," Nilsri explains, "but I did both at the same time because two good locations came up at once."
Those locations are Center Ridge Road in Rocky River, in the former home a short-lived Chinese eatery, and at the busy intersection of Detroit and Warren in Lakewood, in the former home a short-lived barbecue joint. Both restaurants are attractive and comfortable, with the Lakewood locale edging out the River spot in terms of size and décor.
While logic dictates that an owner would maintain a consistent name when opening additional restaurants so as to take advantage of brand loyalty, Nilsri doesn't see it that way.
"I don't like always using the same name," he says. "I like to try something different."
That extends to his menus, which while very similar from spot to spot do contain some regional deviations. If a particular dish is not doing well at a specific location, he says, he'll remove it from the menu. All of the menus are geared towards "American tastes," he admits, but that doesn't mean you won't unearth some classic — and classically prepared — gems.
Brown Sugar's Thai-style cold salads are bright and clean, with that characteristic interplay of warm and cold, soft and crunchy, tart and sweet. The citrusy larb kai ($10.95), for example, pairs warm, spicy stir-fried ground chicken with cold, crisp lettuce. The fragrant dressing is redolent of lime and fish sauce. Similar salads are built around thinly sliced beef ($10.95) and shellfish ($15.95).
Brown Sugar's version of Thai Style Basil ($12.95) is one of the most agreeable I've tried in recent memory. Order it spicy and you'll be rewarded with a flavorful, fiery Thai standard. The use of finely ground chicken makes a huge difference in this dish as it absorbs so much more of the sauce, which is loaded with chiles, garlic, soy and fish sauce. A side of jasmine or brown rice is included.
You'll find all your favorite curry dishes here, ranging from duck in green curry ($16.95) and beef panang ($15.95) to chicken in massaman curry ($12.95). The ones I've tried are solid, if slightly muted in intensity. Noodle dishes too strike all the right chords, with a satisfying pad Thai ($10.95), a more satisfying country-style pad Thai ($10.95), and a less satisfying crispy pad Thai ($10.95). The country-style pad Thai gets a huge boost from the addition of housemade Thai chili sauce, which turns the dish from the familiar pale yellow to crimson. In contrast, the addition of deep-fried noodles added a weird and unpleasant crunch to every bite in the crispy pad Thai.
Fans of the genre will spot many of the same dishes available elsewhere, and that certainly applies to the soups and starters. The hot and sour style soups ($3.95) — either with or without coconut milk — are delicious, if light on protein. That flaw carries over to the summer rolls ($5.50) as well, with the pliant rice paper wrappers bulging from shredded lettuce rather than poached shrimp. Stick with the deep-fried Siam rolls ($5.50) or grilled chicken satay ($6.95) for more substantial fare.
There's no doubt that Nilsri is on a roll, with five restaurants in two states already in his portfolio. Thai food fans might be wondering which neighborhood is next in line to land a Brown Sugar (or distinctly named) restaurant.
"It's a good time to open new restaurants in Ohio," he admits. "But I'm going to take a break for a few years. I need some time."
Brown Sugar Thai Cuisine
Multiple locations, brownsugarohio.com .