Restaurant Reviews

Good Food and Good People Keep Folks Coming Back to Morningside Thai

Want a behind the scenes look at Morningside Thai? Check out our slideshow.

I've always considered it a good sign when, shortly after sitting down to dine in a small, family-run establishment, I'm welcomed into the fold with a special dish or a visit from the matriarch, who's been cooking in the back. That's precisely what happened during my first meal at Morningside Thai.

I had already devoured the first course — crispy fried fish cakes and steamed pork dumplings — when a diminutive Thai woman wearing an apron hustled out of the kitchen area, winked at me and set down a few chafing dishes full of noodles and stir fry and curry on an empty table. The next time she emerged from the back, she was carrying helium balloons, which she then arranged around a few tables, tying them to chairs so they wouldn't escape toward the ceiling. By the time I'd finished my heavenly bowl of red curry with roasted duck and was contemplating dessert, the tiny restaurant had clearly become a party venue.

My server explained to me that she and two other servers shared a birthday, so they were having a joint party in celebration. The tiny aproned woman who had been bringing tray after tray of food out from the back stopped by my table to see how I was doing, but before I could answer, she gestured to the buffet lined up against one wall for the party guests. "You eat!" she demanded, and the servers echoed her invitation. In spite of how much I'd already eaten, I contemplated staying and celebrating with these kind, welcoming folks at the strange little restaurant that I found myself liking more and more every minute.

At first glance, though, I wasn't sure that I would like the place. From looking at the modest interior and overwhelming menu, you'd never guess that this unassuming Thai restaurant makes some of the best red curry — if not the best — in town.

Morningside Thai's red curry is richer, silkier and more dimensional than any I've had in a long time. The aromatic mixture of herbs and spices and coconut milk is dotted with chunks of pineapple and tomatoes and long strands of wilted green basil leaves that sneak up on you with a rush of herbal heat every other bite. It isn't so spicy hot that I can no longer discern the individual flavors of fresh red chiles, tomato puree and lemongrass, but it packs enough heat that no additional spices are needed to make my cheeks flush and cool my sinuses. It's hot with the dull burn of smoked chile paste and ground coriander, and it's sweet and creamy with rich coconut milk, fragrant cardamom and shrimp paste. The addition of duck is not traditional in Thailand except for very special occasions, but it's become popular on menus in the U.S., and it's clear why. Sweet, fatty duck meat lends itself to fragrant red curry better than any other protein I can imagine.

As I left that evening, the celebration was in full swing, and I was smitten with the hole-in-the-wall joint's thoughtfully prepared food and charming staff. I would have liked Morningside Thai even if there had not been a party slowly building throughout the course of my meal, but the low-key nature of the celebration, the convivial chef and birthday girls and the sinfully good classic Thai food made me like it all the more.
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Morningside Thai is so named because it used to be located in a quaint converted cottage on Morningside Drive in the Rice Village area. The owners, Jim and Ying Roberts, were forced to move in November 2012 after a disagreement with the cottage's landlord. They reopened in their new, not-quite-as-cute place this past June, and though there was a crowd there on one night for the birthday celebration, the times that I've been back since, I've noticed more people getting takeout and more orders headed out the door in Jim's hands for delivery than I have full tables.

The restaurant is in a strange little spot, nestled in a corner of a largely empty strip center next to an outpatient surgery center and a delivery pizza place. When I initially went looking for it, I drove right by, thinking it was closed. Inside I found an austere space more reminiscent of a sparsely furnished office than a restaurant with such lively proprietors. The white walls are nearly bare save for a few plain mirrors and a single gilded carving, and the gray-blue carpet and harsh overhead lighting don't seem reflective of the inviting nature of the staff and the addictive and reasonable traditional Thai eats.

After the first round of food (two appetizers and half of four entrées) was eaten, my dining companions were so full that they began clutching their bellies and groaning in mock pain. They chuckled about how much they were eating and how wonderful the spread was, and then they dove back in, forks first, for round two. It was all too good to let anything go to waste.

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Kaitlin Steinberg