You'd be forgiven for losing track of all the Thai places that've opened lately.
The past few years have been boom times for the Southeast Asian cuisine — to the point that Thai restaurants are nearly as ubiquitous as Mexican joints. (It makes sense, really, given that both cuisines have serious kick and share common ingredients such as rice, chile, and cilantro.) Competition for the public's dining dollar is fierce, but that hasn't stopped a proliferation of new eateries in every corner of town. If you're hungry for pad thai, just throw a dart at a map and take your pick of places to find it.
However, there's one spot that I hope you don't discover at random, because in its brief existence, it's clearly raised the bar for Thai food in the Valley: Soi 4 Bangkok Eatery.
Only open a month, this impressive Scottsdale venture is already firing on all cylinders — which is what you'd expect from the folks behind it, the Siri Group. They bring decades of experience to the table (with four Thai restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the original Soi 4 in Oakland), and their finesse is evident in everything from the elegant presentations to the complex flavors to the chic atmosphere.
While the name evokes a famous nightlife district in the Thai capital ("soi" means side street), Soi 4 is right at home amid the upscale Shops at Gainey Village in Scottsdale. Wendell Burnette Architects made a splash last year with the edgy transformation of the old Harold Ekman office building into what's now St. Francis and, with this new restaurant, has given a gorgeous modern makeover to a cavernous strip mall unit.
A patio next to the entrance makes Soi 4 look inviting from the parking lot, while abundant windows and a banquette piled with colorful pillows brighten the front of the room. The ceilings are high enough for a second level overlooking the main dining area, as well as sculptural modern lighting that hangs over neat rows of tables and refurbished wood-and-metal mid-century school chairs. Mirrors along the block walls make it feel more open, too.
Despite the glamorous digs, Soi 4 isn't dramatically pricier than other local Thai restaurants, although there is something the other places don't have that could jack up your bill considerably: an excellent bar. While you might be able to order a beer at a homey neighborhood Thai restaurant, at Soi 4, you can actually grab a seat at the sleek, sexy counter, nibble on small plates, and get positively loopy on craft cocktails that utilize such ingredients as lime and Thai basil (in an effervescent, mojito-inspired concoction) or fresh grated ginger (in a sweet, fruity highball).
Of course, a milky Thai iced tea remains the best way to cool your taste buds after slurping up a spicy curry or fiery stir-fry. I ordered most dishes medium, which was just hot enough to flush my cheeks. I didn't dare numb my taste buds on anything much spicier.
Soi 4 doesn't do a menu of 100-plus items as the traditional homestyle spots do, although there's plenty to choose from, including familiar dishes like toong tong (dainty, golden fried pouches of pork and crab teamed with sweet dipping sauce) and an elegant tom kha gai (juicy chicken and oyster mushrooms in a smooth, tangy coconut soup, spiked with aromatic chunks of galangal and lemongrass).
There were nine different skewered items, and instead of the usual chicken satay, I went with whole grilled squid. There were two of them, actually, infused with a lightly spicy marinade that snuck up on me. Even better was a salad of tender squid tossed with onions, cilantro, shallots, and citrusy sauce heaped on a crisp bed of iceberg. Remind me about this dish when it's 100 degrees out, and I'll call it dinner.
Yum makuer yao was memorably mouthwatering, a lightly smoky, grilled eggplant salad topped with minced chicken and prawns and dressed with pungent lime-coconut dressing. Likewise, I was seduced by the unusual blend of sweet, savory, and tangy in the miang kum, a platter of bite-size wraps made with fresh mustard leaves. Each jagged-edge oval held a tiny mound of roasted coconut, prawns, herbs, and bits of pomelo (a citrus fruit), all sweetened with palm sugar. The combination of textures and tastes made every bite dynamic.
One of the most delicious things I've eaten in ages was Soi 4's keow wan roti, a southern Thai dish that paired pan-fried Indian bread with slices of grilled skirt steak and a small bowl of chunky green curry for dipping. It was truly luscious — juicy, flavorful meat, crispy, hot wedges of doughy flatbread to wrap it in, and a complex, coconut-based curry that smelled like heaven. Talk about love at first bite!
Meanwhile, red curry sauce perked up pristine fillets of catfish, stir-fried with squash, ginger, and green beans. And another southern Thai dish, kua kling mu, knocked me out with bold aromas — it combined pieces of tender pork shoulder, bright green asparagus spears, red pepper, and a dazzling spicy sauce. I had to eat extra jasmine rice in an effort to tone down the heat, even though I sort of loved the punishment.
Rack of lamb isn't a common sight at most Thai restaurants, but it was elegantly done at Soi 4. The lamb yang combined three succulent, ginger-scented grilled chops and an unusual side of sweet grated carrot and smoked tomato relish. If spicy stuff isn't your cup of tea, try this.
I'd love to see Soi 4 come up with something creative for dessert, but traditional sweets like crispy fried bananas and sticky rice with fresh mango certainly sufficed, as did Chambord-drenched berries spooned over vanilla ice cream. After feasting on so much vibrant, exotic Thai cuisine, I actually welcomed the simplicity.
There was a lot to reflect upon, and to appreciate.