Cafe Reviews

Glai Baan Brings a Broadened Sense of Thai Food to Phoenix

Glai Baan's sign.
Glai Baan's sign. Jackie Mercandetti
Metro Phoenix has no shortage of old-school Thai restaurants, purveyors of takeout pad thai and curries whose spice levels can be dialed, if requested, all the way down to zero.

Metro Phoenix, though, doesn’t have a lot of Thai restaurants like Glai Baan, a small, lively midtown restaurant where the scent of lemongrass and grilling meat settles in the air.

Glai Baan — the name translates to “far from home” — specializes in the kind of simple yet exquisite snacks you might find on the streets of Bangkok, as well as the big, bold flavors of northeastern Thailand’s Isan region. Chef and co-owner Pornsupak “Cat” Bunnag, who operates Glai Baan with partner Dan Robinson, grew up eating in Bangkok, and their restaurant feels propelled by a kind of inspired nostalgia. What do you do when you can’t find the flavors of home in the Arizona desert? You convert an old house in midtown Phoenix into a temple of smoky meats, sticky rice, and pungent northern Thai salads, of course.

click to enlarge Pandan, custard with steamed white bread for dipping. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Pandan, custard with steamed white bread for dipping.
Jackie Mercandetti
The restaurant’s small yet uniformly strong menu has helped turn Glai Baan, almost overnight, into one of the city’s most indispensable Thai restaurants. The word is out. The restaurant’s tiny, pleasantly dim dining room (Glai Baan is currently only open for dinner service) is packed to the gills nightly. The space looks more casual and inviting than it did when it housed Mejico, the upscale Mexican restaurant that previously occupied the house. Year-round Christmas lights, strung across the dining room, glow over framed vintage photographs and shiny concrete floors. Outside, there’s a well-lit patio with a couple of trees draped in twinkly lights, and patio tables covered in bright yellow, old-fashioned oilcloth. The restaurant radiates coziness and warmth.

There’s a small yet lively bar furnished with a good selection of wine and beer. It’s where resident barkeep Maxwell Berlin mixes playful, nicely conceived cocktails like The Anywhere Door, a milky, creamy boozy Thai tea pulled with locally aged rum. It comes accessorized with a jaunty cocktail umbrella, a sort of totem of the beachy ethos that’s made Glai Baan a reliable spot for a long, laid-back dinner. Service, like everything else, is casual and amiable.

The modest menu — divided between about a dozen small plates and a half-dozen entrees — is eminently shareable. Some of the most irresistible bites are simple street snacks like moo ping, delightfully smoky, crispy-around-the-edges marinated pork skewers, which are served with a fragrant jaew dried chile dipping sauce. There’s a very credible larb moo, a minced pork salad that’s seasoned with mint, lime, and shallots. Also from the fiery canon of northern Thai salads, there’s the pungent, refreshing salted crab papaya salad, a tangle of thinly sliced, raw green papaya in a pleasingly briny, tomato-y broth. It comes with a heat advisory warning on the menu, but a little more chile heat could really make the flavors bloom.

click to enlarge Kanom Custard from Glai Baan. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Kanom Custard from Glai Baan.
Jackie Mercandetti
There’s also nua num tok, an intensely seasoned steak salad that captures many of the virtues of Glai Baan’s best dishes. The salad is lavished with ultra-fresh citrus and herbs, its lime dressing laced delicately with nutty ground rice. It’s the kind of dish where the ingredients are encouraged to assert themselves boldly and deliciously.

Not to be missed are kanom jeeb, freshly steamed pork dumplings that are exceptionally juicy — a quick dip of ginger soy sauce and they pulsate with even more flavor. And I can’t think of a better way to beat back a chilly night than with a bowl of the kitchen’s tom zap moo, a pork rib soup whose fragrant chile-flecked broth revolves around the reinvigorating properties of lemongrass.

For your main, it might be tempting to put down a bowl of pad thai, and the Glai Baan version nicely shirks the sugary sweetness that afflicts so many takeout renditions. But a far more satisfying option is pad kee mao, a rice noodle stir-fry furnished with crispy, melty bundles of pork belly, and a deft balance of garlic, basil and chiles.

Beyond noodle  stir-fries, there’s kapro gai kai dao, a simple yet densely fragrant minced chicken stir-fry served with a fried egg and a snowball of sticky rice. It’s wonderful. Mackerel fried rice, meanwhile, is another deceptively simple dish with outsize flavor. The rice bowl, deliciously embedded with seared, salty hunks of mackerel, comes with a gorgeously bright, funky, spicy sauce — a simple blend of fish sauce, lime, and just enough bird’s eye chile to clear your nasal passages. A drizzle of the sauce makes the simple bowl sing with flavor and spice.

click to enlarge The interior of Glai Baan. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
The interior of Glai Baan.
Jackie Mercandetti
There are only a handful of curries on the menu, although Chef Bunnag and her team sometimes offer off-menu curries as daily specials. The panang curry with braised beef is impressive and delicious; it thrums with earthy, spicy flavor. Thick, creamy kao soi curry with egg noodles is a little more lightweight, but it’s irresistibly layered with garlic, coconut, and ginger.

Dessert at Glai Baan is simple, subdued, and too good to pass up. There’s sangkhaya — steamed, pillowy hunks of white bread designed to be dipped into a lovely pandan-scented custard. And there’s fresh, beautifully ripened mango, served with lightly sweetened sticky coconut rice — a timeless sweet finish that shines here.

Glai Baan’s modest-sized menu of Thai snacks, stir-fries, and salads is approachable and quite often very delicious. Nothing here, probably, will strike casual Thai food eaters as particularly challenging. The menu, at least not yet, doesn’t delve too deeply into unfamiliar territory; you won’t come here for Thai deep cuts like funky offal, or the extra-pungent notes of Isan cooking. Glai Baan’s scope feels a little smaller than that. In its own way, though, Glai Baan is gently broadening the audience for Thai cooking in metro Phoenix in a way that feels propitious and long overdue.

Glai Baan
2333 East Osborn Road
Hours: Tuesdays through Thursday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight; closed Sunday and Monday

Silom Road moo ping pork skewers $9
Kanom jeeb (pork dumplings) $8
Kao soi chicken curry $13
Panang curry $16
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.