By Rachel Verbits, September 2018 Issue.
In January, U-Haul revealed that Tempe ranked as the top growth city in the nation last year. This growth, as far as we can tell, has led to more jobs, more students, more condos, more traffic and – best of all – more restaurants.
While there are more coffee shops and lunch spots popping up than we could possibly count (let alone visit), there are also a few newcomers that have landed on our radar and, eventually, made it to our must-try list.
ThaiTini is one of them.
Located in the unassuming house-like digs that was once known as the Baer’s Den (insert gay punch line here) this family-owned establishment might just be one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
You won’t find many write-ups or even a website for this trendy new Thai restaurant. In fact, if you blink while driving down Apache Boulevard, between Rural Road and McClintock Drive, you might miss it.
Thankfully, the pineapple perched above the neon sign on the front of the cozy spot emits an unmistakable golden glow after dusk. As the international symbol for hospitality, it has welcomed the city’s newcomers as they pass by for exactly a year now. We thought its first anniversary was the perfect opportunity to savor the big flavors getting cooked up in ThaiTini’s tiny space.
We arrived late in the afternoon and were greeted by the natural light pouring into the space. Large windows at the front of the building invite a brightness that highlights the vibrant atmosphere that’s trendy enough for a student and refined enough to earn the respect of the most discerning Thai lover.
The simple, yet funky décor is the key to the smart use of the space here: one full wall offers brightly colored booth-style seating, with the bar situated along the opposite wall, and there’s a long communal table perched in between. The murals, which serve as the backdrop, are definitely as worthy of a post to your story as the cuisine (which we’ll get to shortly). All that to say: sometimes size doesn’t matter.
After being promptly seated, we flipped right to the specialty drinks and quickly decided on a Thai iced tea and the juice of a fresh coconut – sorry Sun Devils, there’s no piña coladas here. As anticipated, the iced tea and creamy coconut milk mixed together for the rich and brilliantly colored beverage we’ve come to expect to accompany our Thai cuisine. The fresh coconut, however, was a much more unconventional way to start a meal. The tropical fruit arrived cracked open and served with a straw to sipping and a spoon to carving out the flesh (our pre-appetizer appetizer).
From there, we discovered the vastness of the menu, which nearly screams “don’t judge a book by its cover.” And, as we later discovered, it’s also done right. We were impressed with the detailed variety of the sharable plates – from shrimp (three ways) and fish cakes to Thai Toast and crispy noodles – our first indicator that we’d have to come back for a round two.
On the recommendation of our server we ordered the fried spring rolls, which did not disappoint. Stuffed with mixed vegetables and Thai herbs, and wrapped with Thai tofu skin, the order of five rolls came out hot and crispy, yet melted in our mouths after a quick dunk in the sweet and sour sauce.
Our server was also more than happy to make recommendations as we navigated the traditional noodle dishes, a plethora of curry options and elevated rice plates, inquired about specialties, most popular dishes and just how spicy “medium” really is (seriously, we got a quick schooling in seasonal chili crops).
In addition to selecting the spice level, we were pleased to discover that most entrees have the option to choose your desired protein: If you’re looking for familiar favorites, you’ll appreciate the chicken, beef, pork and tofu; if you’re seeking more exotic options, you’ll find calamari, lamb, duck and seafood here too.
Admittedly, we were mesmerized by the endless possibilities and opted for “family style” dining by ordering a number of entrees for the table. IMHO, it’s by far the best way to capture the true essence of such a robust menu.
We skipped the Pad Thai (always a hit) in favor of the Pad-See-Ew. This less popular, but equally delicious, noodle dish consists of pan-fried wide rice noodles with a savory soybean sauce, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, onions and eggs, all mixed together for a perfect entrée that is versatile enough to accompany other dishes and hearty enough to stand on its own.
ThaiTini boasts eight different curry dishes, each one bringing their own set of distinct flavors to diners who love the essence of curry, but are always looking for something new to try. The special roasted duck, sweet nut and pineapple curries showcase the restaurant’s creativity and ability to tantalize more adventurous palates.
You can tell a lot about a place based on their Pad Thai and their red curry, so that made my selection simple enough. Simmered in coconut milk, with bamboo shoots, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, green beans, zucchini and Thai basil, the chicken brought this dish together in perfect harmony. I fell in love with the flavor profile of the red curry, and enjoyed the array of vegetables that were just tender enough to underscore the importance ThaiTini places on freshness. Of course, the side of Jasmine rice ensured that I got every last drop.
Speaking of rice, I am of the personal belief that no Asian culinary experience is complete without a heaping plate of fried rice. And here, the Siamese pineapple fried rice is already standing out as a crowd favorite. Spoiler alert: this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill fried rice with bits of pineapple tossed in. ThaiTini elevates the entire flavor profile of this dish with crisp veggies, crunchy cashews, sweet raisins and aromatic turmeric, which gives the rice a striking golden color and deep layer of flavor. Just like the neon sign out front, it’s the pineapple that’s the star of the show – it’s chopped fresh and adds a welcome burst of tart sweetness with every bite. We added nearly perfect tofu (a feat in and of itself), making it far and away the favorite entrée of the night. It comes as no surprise that word of mouth is generating this dish’s well-deserved fanfare; it earned our must-try recommendation as well.
Before we could even consider the dessert menu, we were already planning our return visit (read: we didn’t save room this time around). Not only did we miss out on the Thai custard and fresh mango with sweet sticky rice, we missed out on the seafood experience here. On our next visit we’ll save room for the sweets and we’re looking forward to exploring the grilled prawns, calamari, scallops and seasonal fish – all of which, we’re pretty sure are arriving here by U-Haul.
925 E Apache Blvd, Tempe
10 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon-Sun