Dining Out: Speedy, spicy fare at Wandee Thai Cuisine
Wandee Thai Cuisine
40 Beech St., 613-237-1641, wandeethai.com
Open: Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 to 9 p.m.
Prices: most dishes between $11 and $13.50
Access: two steps to entrance
Ottawa’s come a long way since Siam Kitchen on Bank Street, the city’s first Thai restaurant, opened in 1980. Three decades later, one online listing tallies almost 100 Thai eateries in the National Capital Region.
Some are barely Thai, qualifying perhaps because there’s some pad Thai on their pan-Asian menus. Others are not-so-great Thai, with weak or even watery tom yum soup, overly sweet pad Thai or other failings. But even if those are set aside, it takes bit of legwork to find a true Thai place that stands out.
For me, the latest Thai find in Ottawa is Wandee Thai Cuisine on Beech Street, between Preston and Rochester streets.
It opened in late March and, given its limited seating (10 seats inside and several umbrella-shaded picnic tables outside), the focus of its business is selling and even delivering take-out meals, as well as serving lunches to nearby public servants. The menu too is limited, lacking liquor and desserts.
On the other hand, the prices here are generally a few dollars cheaper than what you’ll see elsewhere, and I like the open kitchen, which allows the curious and hungry to watch as dishes are made and the flames leap from the wok. It’s sentimental, I know, but I’m reminded of eating food cooked before my eyes on the streets of Bangkok almost 20 years ago.
Above all, in Wandee Thai’s favour are the cooking skills and hospitality of its co-owner, Nittaya Lynch, who worked at restaurants and a culinary school in Thailand, and has cooked, served or managed at such Ottawa restaurants as Baan Thai, Khao Yum, Nakhon Thai and Lemon Grass.
In Wandee Thai’s shoestring operation, Lynch and usually two other kitchen staffers not only cook meals. They also serve the quickly prepared food, graciously and amiable, adding a personal touch.
Lynch, I learned this week after my last visit to her restaurant, is from northeastern Thailand, also known as Isaan. Naturally, when she cooks the dishes from her home region, they have authentic punch and pungency. That explains how fiery her lahp nam tok beef salad was after I said to her question, “Sure, make it spicy.” Even her dialed-down, one-chili som tum (shredded papaya salad offset by sweet tomato and crunchy, just-cooked green beans, all in a fish-sauce-pungent and an as-fiery-as-you-can-handle dressing) was assertively hot and lightly funky.
More subdued were some nicely seasoned and perfectly fried “Isaan-style” chicken wings that Wandee Thai serves as an appetizer. Next time, I might ask Lynch to swap the dish’s simple, sweet dipping sauce with something punchier. I’m sure she would be game, as she told me that she will make off-menu dishes if customers request them and her kitchen is adequately stocked.
Lynch also lived in Bangkok, and she showed a fine hand preparing the curries, stir-fries and noodle dishes of central Thailand.
I’ve sampled a range of curries — a green curry with chicken, a peanut-adorned panang curry with chicken, a red curry that featured shrimp and pineapple — and all were fully flavoured and approachable, and texturally pleasing but for the exception of one mealy shrimp.
Pad Thai here was made with Lynch’s own sauce and was tangy without being too sweet. With Pad Kee Mau, a stir-fry of wide rice noodles with assorted vegetables and beef, the play between spicy and sweet was strong but balanced. Lynch also makes this dish with spaghetti, and apparently this Thai-Italian mashup is a thing.
I liked Lynch’s versions of tom kha gai coconut soup with chicken, which was mellow and comforting, and especially her hot-and-sour tom yum soup, which contains chicken as well as mushrooms and has a fine savouriness to it. I’m glad that Lynch doesn’t skimp with that soup, which I’ve too often found to be diluted, meatless and perfunctory elsewhere.
I can vouch for the $18 dinner combo being something closer to a small feast. Put it this way, I was happy to hive off a lunch serving from my combo, the No. 2 of four choices to be precise, which consisted of two tightly-wrapped, just-fried spring rolls, a bowl of that fine tom yum soup, a bowl of panang curry, and an ample serving of a beef-and-basil stir-fry with proper, al dente peppers and a sauce of marked but not overpowering saltiness and pungency.
Yes, on one hand, Wandee Thai is a lunch counter/take-out joint with no desserts and no beer. But Lynch’s grasp and balancing of her homeland’s myriad flavours make Wandee Thai considerably more than that.