Yes, Siam

Manee Thai brings welcome spice to bland suburbia

Manee Thai

481 Lafayette Center (Manchester and Baxter)

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11:30 a.m. -10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., noon-9:30 p.m. Sun.
Entrees: $7.95-$14.95

As much as I love the more metropolitan aspects of the city and inner suburbs, there are times when those of us who live in outer suburbia crave something more exotic but don't have the time to schlepp into the Loop or down to South Grand. The pickings for unusual ethnic food have by and large been pretty slim the farther out one goes, and a combination of weak demand and bulldozers has meant that spots like Rasoi, Holy Land, Orchid Garden, Kikko Teriyaki and Thai Royal have either moved in closer or faded into oblivion.

Therefore I was heartened to hear of a new Thai restaurant in the same Dierbergs-based strip mall that already houses the wonderful Provençal spot Café Campagnard. This good feeling blossomed into outright enthusiasm after two visits, both of which illustrated the restaurant's ability to offer traditional noodle- and rice-based, inexpensive (under $10), spicy Thai dishes, as well as a wonderful alternative for out-of-the- ordinary, more upscale dining.

Aficionados of the established Thai restaurants in St. Louis will probably find Manee Thai unexpectedly elegant and airy, with about 25 tables well spaced around a room of soft tan walls and stone-tile floors. There's no doubt it's Thai, with relief pictures of elephants on a couple of walls, a portrait of a Thai leader behind the bar and an ornate model of a ship on top of it, but in a nod to the local favorite, a 19th-century replica Budweiser mirror glints from the back of the room. The piped-in music consists of Western European classical selections, but these don't so much distract from the theme as contribute to the overall serenity of the room.

The menu has already gone through at least one version; an early copy I had obtained listed the unusual choice of stir-fried liver and onions as one of the house specialties, but this had disappeared by the time we got around to our visits. Nonetheless, the printed menu still comprises about a dozen house specialties, generally ranging from $11-$15, supplemented by elaborately described daily specials on a board inside the door. The next category down is called "entrees" and includes another dozen of the standards you'll find in most Thai restaurants, as well as a few unusual choices, all made with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu or vegetarian ingredients for $9.95; the noodle and rice dishes drop to $7.95, and it's even possible to make a filling full meal out of the soups or salads for a couple of bucks per person less.

The grilled Thai appetizer called satay is available with chicken, beef or shrimp, and we took advantage of an off-the-menu special ($9.95, best for two people) to try all three in combination. The bright yellow of a curry colored all three (two skewers each) in varying amounts, and, perhaps because of the novelty, I liked the shrimp the best — two medium-large shrimp per skewer, shelled and butterflied, with a good balance of aromatics from the curry and a hint of sweetness from a marinade. At Manee Thai, they prepare all of the satays for you in the kitchen instead of providing you with a tabletop brazier and letting you finish your own.

The fact that everything is freshly prepared was evident in another off-menu appetizer, the todd mann pla — fritters of ground fish sauced with red curry, coconut and kaffir lime leaves — served alongside a dual-purpose salad and dip of cucumber and mild vinegar. The fish was almost still sizzling from the deep-frying but not at all oily or fishy, and the pieces of kaffir lent it a citrusy bite.

The mee grob ($5.95) appetizer took us by surprise but was a taste that we quickly acquired. A huge stack of crispy, fluffy, narrow-gauge round noodles was flavored with a sweet-sour sauce (much heavier on the sweet side), with three delicately battered shrimp, chopped scallions and sliced red bell pepper on top. If I didn't know any better, I'd think it was a Thai version of Rice Krispie treats.

Working our way up the price scale, the pad kee mao ($6.95) was a tasty and healthy dish, a combination of fat and thin noodles mixed with red and green bell peppers, carrots and chopped tomato, flavored with basil and bits of chile pepper. We chose the tofu option to make it even healthier, and the unusual saucing was reminiscent of a spicy Italian dish. The Manee Thai steak ($13.95) was a London-broil-type cut, marinated and shaped into a perfect rectangle, then sliced at a diagonal and served with steamed broccoli, carrot and cauliflower. The kicker, in many senses of the word, was a thin dipping sauce potently flavored with both the fruit and the seeds of hot chiles.

The Shoo Shee shrimp ($14.95) was one of several dishes described as an "exotic Thai curry," nine relatively large shrimp in a gently spicy red curry softened by coconut milk and given a tang by the kaffir lime leaves, again accompanied by steamed broccoli, cauliflower and carrot. My personal favorite, although not a dish for those who don't like their meals to stare back at them, was a nightly special of whole red snapper ($16.95), first fried and then lightly brushed with a fragrant red chile sauce that's spiced according to preference. Mine was "medium," and the translation was "Lips tingle for 30-60 seconds thereafter." The whole fish had been cross-sliced to facilitate removal of the meaty part, and our waitress got me started, although the filleting process was very easy even without her help.

Several relatively exotic desserts are offered; when available, the sticky rice with a whole sliced mango is a real treat, the warm rice flavored with coconut cream and sesame seeds and serving as a perfect counterpoint in both appearance and flavor to the bright-orange, delicately sweet mango.

Singha malt liquor is generally the best hard drink to go with Thai food, and for softer drinks, Manee Thai offers excellent renditions of strong Thai iced tea, flavored with sweetened milk or lime. Service reflects the pre-eminent emphasis on hospitality in Thai culture, and both of our meals took less than an hour without being at all rushed.

For a relatively new place, Manee Thai was busy both nights we visited, drawing a good cross-section of sit-down and carryout business. Long-term viability looks good, which bodes well for those who crave alternatives to suburban sameness.

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