Something wonderful has happened to Mai Thai since it moved from its original spot on South Limestone. The previous incarnation featured watery curries, lukewarm noodles and indifferent service.
In short: The meal never justified the inevitable parking hell it entailed.
But its new home near Nicholasville Road and Man o' War Boulevard seems to have brought new energy and commitment. You are now treated graciously, and although Mai Thai, like all of Lexington's Thai restaurants, does not take any culinary risks that might scare tentative diners (making its menu resemble most others), what it does do, it does much better than before.
Begin with a snack of Mai Thai rolls ($5 and $5.50 at lunch and dinner, respectively). The contrast of tender noodles and savory pork, stuffed in crisp, deep-fried dough, is a terrific starter. Traditional spring rolls — small wraps of omelette, sausage and cucumber — are lighter but uninteresting by comparison.
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Next, share a hot pot, flaming chimney included, of shrimp tom yum ($12), Thailand's bright version of hot and sour soup. The chili spice emerges but never overwhelms. Kaffir lime and lemongrass contribute lively citrus, and the bonding of aromatics — onions, scallions and galangal (mild, softly perfumed gingerroot) — creates a brew both complex and delicious. Plenty of mushrooms and shrimp make it hearty without being filling.
For main courses, the stir-fries are nice and inexpensive ($9 to $12), but why not order what you probably don't make at home?
I speak, of course, of noodles and curries.
The foundation of Thai curries is usually a magical merging of spice and herb pastes, lightly fried, and coconut milk, which, if you are among its champions, makes everything pleasingly richer and sweeter.
For heat, try the chili-spiked, in-your-face green curry with chicken, bell pepper, Japanese eggplant, Thai basil, bamboo shoots and baby corn (although the last two items, in canned and bottled versions, admittedly have a distracting aftertaste).
There also is yellow curry, a comfort food loaded with tender potatoes and great with chicken. You can order this dish spicy, but be judicious: The sauce is rich and delicate, and too many Scoville units would obscure that.
The versatile red curry — not too hot, not too rich — meets the others in the middle. Its vegetables, minus the eggplant, are the same as green curry. Its simple spices work with almost any protein, so don't bother with the beef: it was chewy and tough the night I tried it.
At dinner, curry prices range from a baseline $9 to $11 if seafood is added, and they always include a portion of Mai Thai's eternally fresh rice.
If curry is not your thing, order noodles. Almost everyone loves pasta, particularly pad Thai. But there are other, equally good specialties here.
Pad see-ew's soft, wide rice noodles are pliant without being al dente. They're perfect with beef, but a good "meaty" substitute can be fried tofu. Mai Thai adds carrots to the usual broccoli and egg ($7.50 at lunch). The same noodles and vegetables, minus the carrots, make an appearance in pad kee mow, and they benefit from doses of basil and peppers ($11 with squid). In each, Mai Thai has a nice light hand when saucing the noodles, so they are not cloyingly sweet.
Often, relocation is the kiss of death for a restaurant, creating disruption and a loss of customer base. In Mai Thai's case, however, it has brought nothing but improvement, and I hope its fans will follow it a few miles down the road, where the food — not to mention the parking — should be motivation enough.