Thailand Restaurant

Inside a classic diner in Clark, authentic Thai cuisine is served.

By: Amy Brummer

Thailand Restaurant

291 Central Ave.


(732) 388-4441

Food: Good to very good

Service: Good

Prices: Inexpensive to moderate

Cuisine: Traditional Thai food

Ambiance: Contemporary diner

Hours: Tues.-Thurs. 5-9:30 p.m., Fri. 5-10 p.m., Sat. noon-10 p.m., Sun. 4-9:30 p.m.

Essentials: Visa and MasterCard accepted; BYO; not wheelchair accessible.


   From the outside, this little diner in Clark has all the trappings of a nostalgic greasy spoon. Trimmed in chrome with a well-illuminated kelly green sign out front, it conjures visions of grilled cheese sandwiches, eggs over easy, homefries and bottomless cups of thin, bitter coffee.
   But as the ethnic face of New Jersey has evolved over the years, so have the menus. At Thailand Restaurant, the American comfort foods of yesterday have given way to a Siamese sense of down-home nourishment, serving up pad thai and satay instead of burgers and hot turkey sandwiches.
   What it retains from the legacy of its art deco exterior is the same sort of casual warmth and easygoing atmosphere folks expect when they enter the local diner.
   Inside, booths trimmed in two-tone green vinyl line the walls on both sides of the room, and a single row of tables runs down the middle. Square lights set into the chrome ceiling cast a buttery light, and framed prints of the Buddha soften the décor. The room hums with the sound of clanking dishes, conversations and eating.
   After seating us in a booth in the back corner of the room, the waitress came by to take a drink order. Listed in the "Exotic Beverages" section, which includes soft drinks ($1.50) and tropical juices ($1.50), are Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee ($1.50), and we ordered one of each. Served in old-fashioned fountain glasses, they had the layered appearance of a parfait, the cream-colored condensed milk on the bottom slowly mixing with the brew on top.
   While the coffee fared better in standing up to the sweetness of the milk, the tea proved too astringent for my tastes and as dishes started coming out of the kitchen, the drinks were quickly forgotten.
   On a previous evening, we had enjoyed the spring rolls ($5.95), tom-kha-gai ($7.95), moo-yang ($8.95) and pad thai ($7.95), noted on the menu as "Our Best Seller in NJ, USA."
   The spring rolls are small and plentiful — 10 short cylinders filled with ground chicken and vegetables presented as a stacked pyramid. All soups on the menu are sized for two people, and the large, steaming bowl of tom-kha-gai, chock full of meaty chicken breast and mushrooms in a spicy, complex coconut milk base, was more than we could eat in one sitting.
   Moo-yang is one of the Thai barbecue selections, and the red roasted marinated pork loin is thinly sliced and served with rice. The exterior was seared and smoky, its interior moist and juicy, resonating with ginger and lemongrass.
   The pad thai was first rate with a well-balanced mixture of shrimp, tofu, scallions, peanuts and egg. The outstanding sauce combines the sweet/sour/spicy elements into an oily coating that keeps the rice noodles from sticking together, allowing all the elements to harmonize.
   As in a typical diner, the menu at Thailand Restaurant is extensive, listing more than 125 items. Diners can choose how spicy they want their food prepared — mild, medium or hot — and while I enjoy my food on the spicy side, medium is actually very hot. But the intensity of the heat does not detract from the flavor, and the bustling waitstaff attentively keeps water glasses filled.
   On our most recent visit, we ordered the chicken satay ($5.95) and steamed mussels ($6.95), followed by nam sod ($6.95). We found that the satay, while attractively presented, lacked personality. The large pieces of flattened chicken breast on skewers were fairly dry and didn’t have much flavor. It was served with peanut dipping sauce that was adequate but somewhat bland.
   The mussels, on the other hand, were an unexpected delight. Served on the half shell, the plump, briny shellfish are covered with a blanket of peppers and onions, caramelized to sweetness and offset with the kick of chiles. Nam-sod, a salad of pork, red onions, ginger and peanuts, was also a knockout. Tangy and light, it combines crunchy textures and raw, assertive flavors with the simple ground meat, which sucks up the lime dressing like a sponge.
   Panang curry ($11.95), a coconut and lime-leaf broth with crispy string beans and firm shrimp, is a fragrant orange stew rich with chiles. We ordered it because when it arrived at the table next to us, it looked and smelled too good to pass up. Complemented by a bowl of starchy, sticky white rice, the dish is alternately soothing and invigorating.
   Rad-na ($7.95), a pan-fried rice noodle with beef and broccoli, is the ultimate comfort food. A brown, silken gravy married the wide noodles with strips of beef that are tender from a long braise. It clung to the florets of al dente broccoli, and again the dish managed to keep our attention with its contrasting textures and the individual integrity of its ingredients.
   By this time, the restaurant had cleared out a bit, and as was the case on our last visit, the cooks and waitstaff gathered at one of the empty tables to play a game of cards, intermittently tending to customers. It furthers the restaurant’s charm as it is clear that the staff enjoys their workplace and the company of their co-workers. At the meal’s end, a rich Thai custard ($3.95) made simply with coconut milk, sugar, egg and yellow bean soothed our fiery mouths. As in the best diners, the desserts, which also include fried bananas, lychee with ice, and sticky rice with mango (all $3.95), are made in-house.
For directions to Thailand Restaurant, click here.