Sa Bai Modern Thai Turns an Old Wendy's on Its Ear
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Relax.
Now open them. What sits before you is tasteful tranquility. A white bowl of pleasing, pale green liquid, succulent pink shrimp, scallops, calamari tinged with shades of purple, and small, light gray clams. Tingling your nose is a mild aroma with just the slightest hint of basil. The taste is light at first, delicately sweet, the soft, cushion-y seafood lazily swimming in your mouth, the swallow finished by a tempered sensation of heat.
You've just taken your first bite of seafood green curry at Sa Bai Modern Thai, the restaurant where a tight selection of traditional Thai food resides in a calming, laid-back atmosphere that would make fast food magnate Dave Thomas roll over in his grave.
Because Sa Bai used to be a Wendy's.
"We did most of the work ourselves," says Eric Willis, who co-owns Sa Bai (the Thai word for "relax") with wife Atchara ("Holly") Willis.
They even decided to keep the drive-thru so regulars can easily pick up take-out orders.
Open since November 2010, it's the pair's first restaurant venture. Eric worked for 10 years in management positions for the Wrigley Mansion and Holly spent time at several Valley Thai eateries, including Thai Basil in Tempe.
The exterior of Sa Bai still has that patented Wendy's look, including the curved glass enclosed "patio" in the front. But the former establishment's hustle-and-bustle intentions end at Sa Bai's entryway. Inside, the décor's gone from raucous to restful.
A full bar of custom metalwork has replaced the ordering counter area, complete with a large window opening to a green-tiled kitchen. Harsh lighting has been toned down considerably with the installation of mood lights, candles, frosted windows, and a black drop ceiling. A maroon and olive green palette, dark wood floor, and accents of foliage and Thai-themed accessories surround black tables and chairs and cushioned benches in a once-frenzied atmosphere of faux wood furniture and Frosties. Even the entrance to the "patio" now includes drawn-back, heavy green curtains.
The only thing killing the mood here is the too-loud acoustic coffeehouse music playing on the stereo. On all my visits, the music's volume was distracting and definitely contrary to Sa Bai's "a place to chill" concept.
Unlike the sea of selections found at some Thai establishments, the menu at Sa Bai is refreshingly pared back, featuring traditional favorites like curry, noodle, and stir fry dishes along with more inspired fare such as a brownie sundae drizzled with Ghirardelli chocolate sauce mixed with Thai chili peppers and Sa Bai fried rice, a traditional dish with the added sweetness of pineapple chunks and dried cranberries.
The recipes are Holly's, who created them based on memories of home cooking in her once-home of Chang Mai, Thailand, coupled with working in Thai establishments in the Valley using a more Westernized palate. And for Thai dishes not on the menu, Holly can (and has) made them to order.
"Traditional Thai food brings a lot of flavor and a little heat. That's why we serve all of our dishes with medium spiciness, unless requested otherwise," Eric says. "And we've toned down the fish sauce, which goes into almost everything in Thailand. The intensity of it can be a little too much for people here in the States."
At Sa Bai, the ingredients are fresh (the lemon grass is actually grown out back), the vegetables decidedly al dente, and there isn't a bell pepper in the place — the Willises opt instead for a mixture of jalapeño, Anaheim, poblano, and Thai chili peppers.
The portions are manageable and the dishes can go the way of a business lunch, casual dinner, or something a little more romantic.
Speaking of romance, the signature sauces at Sa Bai had me swooning. I found the flavors of the Thai sweet chili sauce, its rich red color barely hiding wispy bits of pineapple in the ramekin, and the wonderfully creamy, thick, almost smoky flavor of the Thai peanut sauce so seductive, I wanted to dab a bit of each behind my ears and flirt with my table guests.
Good thing those homemade sauces come with an array of tasty appetizers. The crab wonton arrived as a garden of pretty golden florets, with dotted red centers of sweet chili sauce. They were perfectly fried, with light packets of warm crab meat mixed with celery and onions in a rice pasta, making for wonderful pre-meal poppers. Scoopfuls of moist, seasoned ground chicken with cashews, sweet onions, crispy noodles, and crunchy cabbage and carrots made their way, quickly, onto lettuce leaves for flavorful Thai lettuce wraps. And the satisfying seasoned chicken satay came with not only that habit-forming Thai peanut sauce, but with a wonderfully tangy cucumber salad.
Given the goodness of the other starters, the crispy Thai rolls, unfortunately, were uninspiring, the flavors ho-hum — not even the sauces could save them.
Sa Bai's sensible portion sizes mean an opportunity for the addition of a salad or soup. I found my papaya salad with grilled shrimp, carrots, tomatoes, green beans, and peanuts good, but slightly overdressed with spicy lime juice dressing. And apart from wanting to taste more mint in my chicken mint salad, it still offered a fresh flavor with a bit of heat and included cilantro along with flavorful minced chicken.
A bowl or hot pot of the popular tom yum soup made with shrimp is not to be missed, its distinct hot and sour flavors and fragrant aroma courtesy of ingredients like lemon grass, sliced fresh mushrooms, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai chili. And the spicy seafood soup is just as spicy and tasty as the tom yum, but adds the extra key elements of scallops, clams, and calamari.
A tight menu means a small number of dishes need to be made well. Not a problem at Sa Bai. The spicy fried jasmine rice was light, fresh, and perfectly pan-fried, not dry. Unlike many a Pad Thai, whose noodles desperately stick together in a massive clump, the small, stir-fried rice noodles at Sa Bai held their own. And while I found the crispy wontons topping the dish unnecessary, the Pad Thai's sour and sweet flavor finished with mild heat made picking them off the top worth the effort. Stir-fried dishes such as fiery Pad Prik King (dry red curry) featured firm, fresh veggies and tasty beef. And even without the pronounced flavor of anise I wanted in my Thai basil classic stir-fry, it was still tasty, with sweet shrimp, poblano chilis, garlic, bamboo shoots, and green beans.
When it came to the curry at Sa Bai, I found a lot of favorites — in fact, nearly all of them. The aforementioned seafood green curry was a standout, as was the seafood cooked in choo chee, a red curry cream sauce that's spicy with a hint of sweetness. The classic yellow curry was rich, creamy, and mild and paired wonderfully with tender chicken and vegetables. And the mussaman, featuring braised boneless beef short ribs in a spicy curry with potatoes, peanuts, and cinnamon essence, was the Thai version of a comforting stew on a blustery day.
Along with the traditional Thai fare came traditional Thai desserts — fried bananas and sticky rice with fruit — and a brownie sundae. The concept of "Thai-inspired" was there, a chocolate sauce mixed with Thai chili peppers, but, unfortunately, the intended spiciness was not. Still, it's a decent option if a chocolate ending is your thing.
The service at Sa Bai can be as easygoing as the atmosphere, which is not always a good thing when it borders on lackadaisical. Missed opportunities to inquire about drinks or desserts, empty glasses and plates left at the table, and, in one instance, the discourteous dropping off of my check without a word from the server ran contrary to the enthusiasm and passion of the owners.
Especially Holly, who made sure Sa Bai had the blessing of monks.
"A few guests weren't sure if they could come in when they heard them chanting." Eric says, laughing. "We sent them back to the temple with good food and some flip-flops."
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