Sukhothai just might be the best Thai restaurant in Toronto. The chef's a perfectionist. Please be reasonable when deciding to order something from here. You don't understand how bad I need my guaytiaw fix on a given weekend so we'll have to work out some kind of joint custody. I'll post my dinner-time on twitter a day in advance of my visit or delivery (yeah they do deliver) if you promise not to place an order in that one hour window. Cool?
Sadly for me, everyone is welcome as proprietors Jeff and Nuit Regular run their tiny, low-key takeaway (named after a Northern Thai city not far from where Nuit grew up) with warmly generous hospitality as if anyone who walks in the door is welcome guest dining at their family table.
The intrepid thirty-somethings met while Jeff was travelling through Northern Thailand and followed a seemingly fairytale plotline (for a restaurateur anyway) as they fell in love, married and proceeded to run a successful restaurant with some of Nuit's family in the sleepy town of Pai where she grew up. Upon returning to Canada the last thing they wanted to do was immediately start another restaurant. Thankfully, fate had other plans in store.
Nuit, a trained nurse in Thailand, is still really busy updating her nursing qualifications for Toronto (hence the reason they're only currently open on Friday and Saturday) until she can find someone skilled enough to help execute her excellent card of Northern Thai fare. When she's not studying hard, she spends a lot of time sourcing ingredients and painstakingly makes every dish to rigorous standards. Nuit focuses on accurately recreating the smells and tastes of home and while it may take a little longer than your average Thai take-out, believe me this is far from average Thai take-out. Like the best passages from Greene or Kipling, this food has the power to transport.
Start with crispy, greaseless shrimp chips ($1.99) with a fantastic homemade sweet and hot dipping sauce bursting with a heady mixture of chili, sugar, tamarind and fish sauce that takes this standard starter way beyond the pale.
Easily feeding two, a huge bowl of sweet, gloriously creamy Tom Kha Gai soup ($8.35 with rice) is wildly fragrant with lemongrass and smooth coconut infused chicken broth, dialed up to a sublime frequency by the addition of thin, crunchy slices of fresh galangal that offer a tangy, mildly gingery flavour exploding in your mouth, creating a bright accent to this simple soup. Flavours appear and disappear across your tongue like the vision of that pretty girl you fancy in a crowded bar-- it elusive, seductive and definitely leaves you aching for more.
Sure they have Pad Thai ($8.49), you can even have it for free if you bring in a picture of yourself frolicking during your last visit to Thailand since Jeff hopes to adorn one entire wall of the Restaurant with pictures of the patrons in his adopted homeland. But if you're in a noodle mood, don't overlook the soupy noodles which are a definite highlight of the small but flavourful card. Northern thai food is heavily influenced by near-by neighbours Burma and Laos and the Burmese influenced Khao Soi Noodles ($8.35) takes chewy, toothsome egg noodles and bathes them in a mild yellow curry broth adorned with generous chunks of chicken or beef. A crispy sprinkling of deep-fried noodles added for texture elevates the dish to something special and you'll be ruing the fact that the plastic spoons offered aren't bigger.
If heat is what you're looking for then the Guaytiaw Sukhothai ($7.49) will have you sweating in a good way. It is possibly one of the best noodle dishes I've had in this city and is one hell of a balancing act of complementary flavours. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter. It's all there in a refined perfection of flavour all sexy and popping like a chorus of bra clasps at a sorority house slumber party. The spiky chili heat, gently soothed with lemongrass perfume-infused broth, is enriched with a signature tamarind tang. Huge chunks of intensely flavourful brisket, marinated for an entire day in a secret spice blend before it hits the bowl, add heft to the dish while crunchy spring onion, fragrant coriander and ground peanuts add texture and even more flavour.
Sweet green chicken curry (Geng Kiaw Wan, $7.49 with rice) is a deft expression of the classic dish employing punchy flavours where others versions are muted, using spice to mask the lack of depth. Sukhothai's version is true to the rest of their menu an offers strong hits of lemongrass, chili, coconut and chicken flavour in quick succession with every tasty spoonful better than the last.
Exhausted from this scorching jets-vs -shark-worthy dance of flavour? The deserts give you a chance to catch your breath. Subtly sweet, chewy casava cakes offer respite from the spice or bath your tongue in intensely cocunutty tapioca pudding for a fine finish to the meal.
While the service can occasionally be a little on the slow side (at least for now) its come by honestly and at these prices for such high quality food you can afford to wait. If you're looking for a taste of real Thai instead of your standard ketchup-y noodle fare, you'd do well to head over to Sukhothai for a visit. Just be prepared to fight me for a spot in line.
Jeff Nuit took some time to tell BlogTO readers a little about Sukhothai in their own words:
What's your culinary background?
Nuit has been cooking ever since she can remember. She grew up in Northern Thailand and had to help her mother cook as a little girl. When it came to cooking, her mother was a perfectionist. This is where Nuit picked up her accute attention to detail in the kitchen.
We also ran a restaurant in Thailand called "the Curry Shack". It was located in a small, sleepy town called Pai, in Nothern Thailand. It quickly became a cool spot to hang out for the frequent tourists, and was praised for the delicious food, especially the curries and the Pad Thai. The word spread fast, and before we knew it, we had travellers coming in saying that they heard about us in Laos and Vietnam.
What inspired you to open Sukhothai?
Our basic goal is, when our customers walk into the restaurant, we want to make them feel that they have just walked into a little shop in the middle of Thailand. We want the customers who have been to Thailand, to be transported back, and for the customers who haven't been, to get a feel of what it would be like. We want to give them that same
friendly service that we gave in Thailand and, most importantly, that same amazing taste.
When are you planning to open throughout the week?
We are planning to open full-time again by the end of April
When will your menu be available online?
We just had an amazing photoshoot done of our food and we're working on the website now. Should be up very soon.
Give an example of a difficult experience you had trying to source authentic thai ingredients in Toronto.
Getting the proper ingredients for Sukhothai has been a nightmare at times. Nuit is very picky when it comes to what goes into the food. That means no substitutes. If we can't find exactly what we need, we don't sell the dish. We've had some instances where we started buying rare ingredients, and the suppliers just all of a sudden stopped stocking them, because we were the only ones buying it. We actually had to take dishes off the menu because of this. In other similar cases we were lucky enough to convince them to supply the ingredients just for us.
What's your favourite local Thai restaurant besides yours?
Since we can get great Thai food at home, we rarely go out for Thai food. The few times we did, it was pretty disappointing. I'm sure there are great Thai restaurants out there, but It's definitely tough to find real Thai food in Toronto.
How is Northern Thai food different from say Southern Thai food from the islands or food from Bangkok?
Northern Thai food is not as spicy as it is in the islands and a little less diverse than the food in Bangkok. There is more of a Laos and Burmese influence. Personally, my favourite Thai dish is the Khao soi, which is a Burmese-influenced dish. Coming back from Thailand, this was the one dish that I craved but could never find, so when we opened up Sukhothai, that was the first dish on the menu.
Update: Sukhothai is now open Monday-Thursday 11:30 am to 9 pm and Friday-Saturday 11:30 am to 10 pm.
Photos courtesy Adrienne Tam