When members of the Meekhunsut family moved to Milwaukee from Bangkok 13 years ago, they opened Thai Kitchen to introduce the true tastes of their old home to their new one.
Now, no longer associated with the Oakland Avenue restaurant -- which changed ownership and its name to Thai A Kitchen in 2002 -- the Meekhunsuts are back on the dining scene with Mai Thai, 1230 E. Brady St., in the former Oriental Coast space.
Owner Amy Meekhunsut says she, her mother Tuk and brother Arm -- who both are chefs at the restaurant -- wanted to portray a different side of Thailand with their new venture, which opened July 5.
Mai Thai's vibrant decor conjures a contemporary, fun image of Thailand -- like the one Meekhunsut remembers from her childhood -- rather than the fancier, more ornate aesthetic of most other Thai restaurants in the area.
"It's very casual, but there's a sophistication to it," she says. "Just because it doesn't look like a traditional Thai restaurant doesn't mean that we're not traditional. Just because we have a nice atmosphere doesn't mean we have to sacrifice the authenticity of the food."
A large painting hanging on the back wall showcases three wooden boats with bright red tethers docked on a sandy bank with tall, lush banana trees and the crystal blue waters of the Andaman Sea surrounding them. This, says Meekhunsut, was the inspiration for the room's design. The restaurant's walls match the clean sea blue and are accented by dark bamboo, fish net light fixtures and sheer white mosquito netting doubling as room dividers. Meekhunsut says it's meant to resemble beachside Bangkok, and she's achieved the feel without overdoing it or getting cheesy.
"The thing about Thailand is that nothing really blends in," Meekhunsut says, referencing the painting. "This picture is very beachy and uses Earth tones, but then the artist splashed some red in there. We feel that that's representative of our food, too. Whereas Chinese and Japanese let the natural flavors stand out, we pick a bunch of natural flavors and throw them all together to make a whole different flavor. Everything about Thailand is about bold, in-your-face flavors."
The menu at Mai Thai is fairly large but well-organized by dish -- salads, noodles, curry, stir-fry, fried rice and specialty -- and then categorized by flavor profiles: sweet, sour, savory and spicy. This is representative of how people eat in Thailand, says Meekhunsut.
"In Thailand, if one person goes out to eat, they order two dishes. If two people go out, they order three dishes. That's how we handle spice. If we order something spicy, we also order something sweeter to balance it out."
Mai Thai's menu features some of the old Thai Kitchen favorites, but there are several new items, including the four-season sampler, which includes the popular spring rolls, rolls for summer (fried spring rolls), as well as more unusual rolls for fall (ground chicken, yam and curry, wrapped in rice paper and fried) and winter, (Thai sausage, Thai omelet, bean sprouts and cucumbers in rice paper which is then steamed and drizzled with tamarind sauce.)
Specialty dishes like kao mon gai (garlic rice topped with chicken, ginger soy sauce and a cup of chicken broth soup) and kao mok gai (marinated chicken topped with curry rice, shallots and cucumber relish) are very traditional, and commonly sold by street-side vendors in Thailand, says Meekhunsut.
When seated in the dining room, you can't help but notice the pillows lining the handmade wooden benches. They are made from Thai silk -- Mai Thai means "Thai silk," actually -- something the Meekhunsuts chose for its both its beauty and imperfection.
"When you feel it, it feels rough, but they say that it imprints the feelings and emotions of the weaver. That's how we feel about our food. Everything we make is fresh and we really put our heart and soul into it. We wanted to go into the restaurant industry because we want to show the real Thai food. If you don't like it, cool, but at least try the real thing. We're not here to be the best; we're just here to share our culture."
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”