Sean Mckee, Staff Writer
139 Main Street
Gastronomically speaking, Oneonta has plenty going for it. The subs at Daddy Al’s or Hometown Deli, sandwiches from Undercover Eggplant, or pretty much anything off of the Autumn Café’s brunch menu are all fantastic reasons why dining in Oneonta is more than just diners and chains. But if you were to look at a map of the restaurants in Oneonta as if it were a cartographical menu then a somewhat disturbing trend pops up. Think about the major food stops. The Neptune Diner, pizza joint after pizza joint, family Italian restaurants like the Italian Kitchen or Stella Luna’s, and of course Brooks BBQ, which is virtually synonymous with Oneonta dining.
In a word, Oneonta dining is heavy.
It’s essentially a landscape of American appropriated cuisines, whether it’s Italian American, Asian American or straight-up American. This generally means large portions of meat, heavy, overpowering sauces and mounds of cheese. Not that there is anything wrong with a good pizza or Chinese take-out, but it weighs a city’s collective belly down when there is no balance in the mix.
This is why I was excited to see Simply Thai open its doors. Asian cooking is based upon the concept of balance between the five central flavors of sweet, sour, salty, “umami” (i.e. savory) and bitter. A good Thai restaurant knows how to incorporate all of these flavors without one outlasting the other, which is a stark contrast to common patriotic meals like a burger with fries or roasted chicken and potatoes.
(Full disclosure: I love Thai food, if you couldn’t tell. I look at it the way most people look at pizza and sex: even when it’s bad, it’s good.)
Walking into Simply Thai is kind of surreal. The last time school was in session it was the Corfu Diner, which had flirted with Thai food but played it safe by offering primarily Greek-American standbys. To see the building in its current state is like walking into a photo-negative version of the old diner. The walls and floor tiles are painted dark red paired with light yellow. The bar is redone and all soda or beer wall fixtures have been taken down in favor of a few well placed pictures of Thai scenery. It’s an upgrade, but their choices for ambient music seem odd at times; “Margaritaville” doesn’t exactly fit a classic Asian dining experience.
Thai menus are interesting because they are designed with what is essentially an unseen drop-down menu. While a Chinese restaurant menu has a phone book’s worth of options tantamount to the same dish with different meat, Thai menus have each option organized into sections, with a list of accompanying protein options on top. For instance, there’s a fried rice section with options like pineapple fried rice or spicy basil fried rice. Once you settle on the dish (the pineapple fried rice is a personal favorite of mine, partly because when done right it is such a gorgeous and colorful dish), you can choose the protein option that is the center of the dish: beef, chicken, tofu, etc. This makes reading the menu less daunting than some other restaurants, where one may be choosing between three different types of General Tso’s chicken scattered in three random locations.
When I ate Simply Thai they were offering their lunch specials, which I highly recommended to the college student on a budget. Lunch starts with a mixed green salad and the house peanut dressing which is quite paltry but tasty. This was followed quickly by the main course which for me was the yellow curry and shrimp.
The actual definition of curry is a dish containing meat, fish, or vegetables in a highly spiced sauce. That’s it. There’s nothing about it that requires flavoring with Indian spices or curry powder (which is a British concoction). The “highly spiced sauce” is what really makes it a curry, not the chicken or fish. There’s a sizable difference between Indian curries and Thai curries. In the vaguest of terms Indian curries tend to be thicker and flavored with spices from the India, whereas Thai curries are built upon wet, soupier bases and use more traditional Thai flavors like coconut milk and chiles.
The yellow curry is a sauce based on yellow chili paste and coconut milk. It is served with potato, carrots, onions and shallots on a bed of jasmine rice. I had mine prepared at a spiciness level of four out of five, which was just enough to keep me sweating through my meal. The portions were ultimately satisfying for a lunch meal and the vegetables tasted fresh. There was just enough to feel full but not uncomfortable. My bill, including a Thai iced tea (a drink I’ve tried numerous times but never managed to finish), came out to around $11.
One of my companions ordered the Pad Thai with chicken, the “workhorse” of the Thai restaurant. I did not have enough of a sample to get a good idea of how it stacks up to other Pad Thai but he seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. My other companion tried the Tom Yum soup with chicken, a watery hot and sour soup that really plays with the combination of spicy and sour–two flavors that do not get proper respect in American cooking.
The only criticism that arose was that the service was a little scatter-shot. Around 2 p.m. on a Thursday we were seated and served with impressive quickness, but then had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for the bill to arrive. When we went back at dinner time on Saturday (known as restaurant rush hour) we were seated quickly but then ignored for half an hour with no adequate idea of when we were going to have our order taken. It is entirely understandable that restaurants are busy at that time; I personally do not have any problem with waiting. But we got Cajun that night.
Lunch runs from 11-3 Monday through Friday.