No-frills No Thai! caters to the college crowd
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
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
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
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
403 E. Grand River Ave., East Lansing
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
TO, D, OM, $$