It can be a challenge to stand out in the very crowded ethnic restaurant market of Lakewood, let alone Cleveland. When it comes to Thai food alone there are three separate options within a single half-mile stretch of Madison Avenue. Open just under a year, Thai Thai has indeed managed not only to stand out but rise like cream to the top of the takeout menu pile for folks tired of begging owners to make their food "Thai spicy."
Thai Thai offers the perfect illustration of how less is more: less in terms of the space, less in terms of the design, and less in terms of the menu. Like a '60s-era cafe racer, this nimble eatery is stripped down to its bare essentials. That's precisely what happens when you hand the keys over to the next generation and let them do their thing.
Kiwi and brother Santi Wongpeng grew up in a restaurant family. Their parents opened and operated the original Thai Hut down the street (now run by different owners) before moving on to the Asian Grille, which they operated for about eight years until the neighborhood no longer provided them with the level of business required to sustain it. At the urging of the kids, the family came out of retirement.
"This restaurant was actually my idea," Kiwi says. "Everybody here does Thai food for Americans. That's not Thai food to me. I said, 'Why don't we do something new, something more authentic, something like street food.'"
Thai Thai is the kind of joint you'll drive right by, a nondescript storefront in a sea of nondescript storefronts. There are just 15 seats in the diminutive space, and a handful of those are simply stools at a wall-facing counter. In place of the customary pages-long laminated menu filled with dozens of dishes that everybody ignores in favor of pad Thai, this spot hands over a tidy one-sheet affixed to a clipboard. It's not just the trimmed-down quantity of offerings that stands out; it's the nature of those dishes.
Devised for the Instagram generation, Thai Thai offers guests a greatest hits-style mix of dishes that are both foreign and familiar, but always memorable. Items are annotated by Kiwi with emoji-era clips like "Try me!" and "Very tasty!" and "Most popular street dish!"
"When we were making the menu, I kind of thought back to my memories of when I was young and living in Thailand," Kiwi explains. "I thought about all the different street foods they served and we kind of mixed them together."
I've never been to Chiang Mai, but thanks to the Wongpengs I've tasted that city's signature sausage, sold at countless food stalls and markets throughout the city. The chubby housemade links ($5.50) are juicy and pungent, with floral kicks of lemongrass. Likewise, gai yang, Thai-style grilled chicken, is as ubiquitous a dish as they come on the streets of Bangkok. At Thai Thai, marinated chicken ($5) is skewered, grilled to order, and served charred and juicy. Pair that dish with some sticky rice ($5) and som tum ($7.95) and you're halfway to earning your Thai citizenship. Som tum, for the uninitiated, is a deceivingly spicy salad composed of shredded green papaya, carrots, green beans and bean sprouts in a tart and blindingly bright citrus dressing.
Thai Thai isn't the only place in town to serve pad krapow ($9.95), sometimes listed on menus as Holy Basil, but it is one of very few that tops the steamed jasmine rice with a runny fried egg, as is customary on the streets of Thailand. The habit-forming minced-meat dish has that textbook layering of sweet, tart and salty, and the standard-issue heat level is "Thai spicy" without the need to sound like a goober when ordering. For those who prefer AARP-level heat, the gentle charms of the coconut-scented massaman curry ($10.95) is like krapow with training wheels.
For those of us, on the other hand, who have no ceiling when it comes to heat, Thai Thai supplies the expected (but annoyingly rare around here) condiment caddy. One, known here simply as "Best," is a bewitching brew of chiles and roasted garlic in a sweet-tart vinegar base. That sauce is engineered to pair with Thai Thai's excellent noodle soups, like the roasted duck ($9.95), a deep, savory broth filled with duck meat, thin noodles and fresh herbs, and the seafood noodle soup ($10.95), which appears hot pink from the addition of homemade fermented bean paste.
Another clue that this is not your grandparent's Thai restaurant: Nearly half of the menu is designated as either V or VG.
"We keep our options open because we know that 40 percent of our customers are vegetarian or vegan," says Kiwi.
I never did end up trying the pad Thai, but I hear it's excellent.