Sometimes you find one of those hole-in-the-wall gems where the food is so surprising and so good that you feel like making bold pronouncements when you leave.
I'm about to do that after two visits to Salween Thai, a new restaurant in a nondescript strip mall off Saddle Creek Road, where I found Thai dishes both familiar and adventurous all served with a remarkable depth of flavor and seasoning. I think it might be the best I've had in town.
Now, Salween, hire another waitress or two. You'll need the help.
Salween is where Juba, an African restaurant, used to be, though you wouldn't recognize the interior. Salween has a much nicer, more finished look, with a quiet atmosphere and modern tables and chairs. Grey carpet warms up the space and a television set adorns the back wall. A cracked glass screen sits in front of the entrance, blocking the view of the parking lot and Saddle Creek traffic. The staff, though small and sometimes slow, was friendly and helpful.
The menu at Salween is a mix of Thai standards — a variety of green, red and yellow curry and a few takes on pad thai — mixed in with some unusual choices that adventurous eaters will be into. (More on adventurous later.)
Our first visit began with fish cakes, an appetizer with an appealing flavor but a chewy texture that some might find off-putting.
I really liked the heavy dose of lemongrass and ginger in the cakes, which were mild with fish flavor. I liked the thinner version of sweet and sour sauce, too. What I didn't love was the slightly greasy finish and the tougher texture of the cakes, which I think is less a problem with cooking technique and more of a cultural preference. The American idea of ethnic food and Salween's menu collided a few times, though it wasn't always bad.
It happened again with the beef salad, an entree I ordered at the recommendation of our waitress.
The menu has photos of each dish and the salad looked much better in real life than it did in the photos — this was true with almost everything we tried.
The salad, served at room temperature, was green with bits of basil, cilantro, mint and tangy kaffir lime leaves.
Peppercorns and red pepper flakes were scattered through the pile of thinly sliced meat. The spices and layers of flavor made up for a lack of dressing, as did the moistness and hint of acid from lime juice. The dish comes with a side of white rice.
Salween Thai's manager, Thabwe Kin, whose parents own the restaurant, said the chili in the beef salad is crushed dried chili.
It wasn't a “salad” in the American sense of the word, but that didn't make me like it any less. It was a satisfyingly spicy and surprisingly light meal.
My husband ordered his green curry with beef at level eight spicy — Salween spices its food on a scale of one to 10 — and the waitress urged him to lower it to a seven. I got my salad at a level five and it was spicier than I expected. It's safe to say that Salween's spice scale tends toward the hotter — next time, I will go down a number or two and unless you like things super-spicy, I'd recommend you do too.
Kin said the restaurant tries to keep its spice scale “authentic” to food in Thailand. Some customers have said the scale runs toward too spicy, so the staff tries to ask the person how spicy they like their food instead of always relying on the scale.
Some customers, especially those who are Thai or have been to Thailand, she said, want their food really spicy.
“They don't want it to be like other Thai restaurants here,” she said.
Two glasses of creamy, cold Thai iced tea helped to put out the flame.
The green curry came in a huge bowl and smelled divine; a stir of the bowl exposed sliced meat along with zucchini, red and green peppers and an array of herbs and spices floating in the sauce. Each bite burst with flavor, and my husband commented that it tasted more nuanced than most Thai food we've eaten in Omaha. I agreed. Both my salad and his curry had layer upon layer of sweet, spicy and herbaceous flavors that made the meal fun to eat.
Prices at Salween are incredibly reasonable. The before-tip total for our first meal, which included two entrees, an appetizer and the two teas, was $25. The second, without the teas, was $20. It's almost criminal that food this good can be that cheap.
Service at Salween can be slow. We never saw more than two wait staff in the dining room at once, and on our first visit, when things got busy, we had to wait longer than I like to wait for our check and to-go boxes. On the first visit, our drinks came after the entrees.
The restaurant does a brisk trade for both seated diners and to-go orders, which might be part of the problem. Slowness aside, service is friendly and the waitresses were more than happy to answer questions and recommend dishes.
We got a bit more adventurous on our second visit, which started with the sausage ball appetizer.
What came to the table was a plate of meatball-sized brown balls that looked like nothing I had seen before. Inside a sausage casing was a filling of rice, garlic, peppery spices and a blend of transparent glass noodles and sticky rice. Though they tasted like meat, I couldn't see any meat inside the casing. The balls came with big chunks of cucumber, whole green and red peppers and raw cabbage leaves that I wasn't sure how to eat.
Kin told me that diners are supposed to take the sausage ball with accompaniments and eat it in a lettuce leaf, or in this case, a cabbage leaf. It would have been much tastier to eat that way, as a sort of modified lettuce wrap. Instead, though, I ate the sausage balls alone with a fork and left the vegetables behind. Call it a case of user error.
She said there is ground pork in the balls, along with soy sauce, salt, vermicelli noodles and Jasmine rice.
My husband tried the pork and vegetables served with noodles, which got tastier with each bite.
Buttery, rich pork belly and its crispy skin, all cooked nicely, meshed with crisp green vegetables, including zucchini, among others. The vegetables offset the rich fattiness of the meat, and a side of noodles soaked up a light sauce and more of the fat.
The crispy pork isn't the most adventurous thing on the menu at Salween, but it's more unusual than the basics, including their version of pad thai, which we tried with both beef and tofu. The pad thai at Salween wasn't too different from others I've had around Omaha, though I did appreciate a few things: the tenderness of the beef, the nicely seasoned tofu and the fact that the noodles didn't stick together in a big blob as they sometimes do.
I wanted to see just how far an adventurous eater could go on Salween's menu, and I found out when I asked our waitress for a soup recommendation. She urged me to try No. 25, “Boat Noodle Soup” or Nam Tok.
Nam Tok looked like Vietnamese pho in the photo on the menu but had one additional ingredient, the waitress said. Blood.
Yes. Blood. After a few minutes of internal debate, I went for it, figuring if nothing else it would make for an interesting story.
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The soup was similar to pho, with its chunks of tender beef and chewier beef tendon, small meatballs, green onions and transparent noodles. Where it differed was the taste of the dark brown broth, which had an unusual depth that was richer than I expected and melded with the spiciness of chiles and pepper for an almost overwhelmingly savory flavor. As I dug deeper into the bowl, big pieces of cooked greens came to the surface. I have to be honest, though. The broth weirded me out a little bit.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered: How was this different from eating the red-in-the-center steaks I've written about? Or the steak tartare I've tried a few times? Or even the medium rare hamburgers I've been known to wolf down? Not that different.
Kin laughed when I told her that I tried Nam Tok. She said the restaurant uses just a teaspoon or two of pork blood in the soup, which is combined with twice the amount of very hot water and herbs to take the raw taste away.
“It also kills the smell,” she said.
The soup also can be made with beef blood, though Kin said that's much harder to find.
Salween Thai serves great food, and its most basic dishes — pad thai and curry — were done well. But it does more than just serve great food. It offers a challenging food experience, if you want one, that makes you think about flavors and spices and culture and most of all your own limits when it comes to the dinner table.
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