Oh, Mai Thai! Omaha Southeast Asian Restaurant a Perennial FavoriteApr 26, 2023 03:00PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Even on a Sunday at two o’clock in the afternoon, Mai Thai in Aksarben Village is packed. Little wonder—the restaurant delivers some of the most consistently delicious Thai food in the city. Situated across from Stinson Park, the restaurant is one of Omaha’s most vaunted Southeast Asian dining establishments. Mai Thai is well regarded for its broad assortment of Thai cuisine and contemporary interior; high ceilings, walls wrapped in calming blues and grays, and a massive, burnished gold elephant mural that dominates its northern wall. It’s a bit of East meets West, and perfect for a casual lunch or more upscale dinner.
My three dining companions and I ordered an assortment of dishes from the wide-ranging menu to gauge what the kitchen was capable of. For appetizers, we started with the crab Rangoon and coconut shrimp and attempted to order the grilled chicken satay, Dining Companion 1’s favorite. Unfortunately, they were out, a problem that seems to happen regularly—a curious reoccurrence for a popular menu item made from a basic, readily available ingredient. We also learned that Mai Thai no longer carries their fresh spring rolls, which was the second hiccup on the appetizer front. The spring rolls offered a nice alternative to the appetizer list, otherwise heavy on the fried breading, so fingers crossed they bring those back at some point in the future and sort out their ongoing chicken satay shortage.
Supply issues aside, portions came out perfect for starters—just enough for each person to sample without overindulging. The egg rolls, stuffed with sautéed cabbage and carrots, were fried to a rich golden brown and paired perfectly with the sweet chili sauce. The puffed crab Rangoon dumplings were even more lightly fried, with a delicate crunch on the outside that gave way to a pillowy cream cheese center specked with flakes of crab and slivers of scallion. The coconut shrimp emerged as the table favorite; the battered shrimp coating provided a satisfying backdrop for the coconut flakes, punctuating the succulent shrimp. A sweet dipping sauce with a hint of heat made this appetizer both sought (and fought) after. Next time, we all agreed, we’d go for a double order.
For our main courses, we went far and wide around the menu in an attempt to sample as much as possible. Dining Companion 1 opted for the basil beef with a mild spice level of two. (The kitchen can control the heat in every dish, with diners asked to rank how spicy they’d like their meals based on a one-to-five scale.) Stir-fried with lightly sautéed onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms, the tender beef—nestled in a delicate sauce—was accompanied by a generous mound of white rice. The abundant use of basil leaves throughout the dish provided a fragrant boost that elevated the umami flavor of the beef.
Dining Companion 2 ordered the Saigon pork chop. Although Mai Thai focuses on cuisine from Thailand, it also offers a smattering of Vietnamese cuisine, and this garnered raves from everyone who savored a bite. Grilled to caramelized perfection, two meaty pork chops, marinated in garlic, honey, and lemongrass, had a melt-in-your mouth texture. The fried egg on top gave the pork just the right balance of jammy creaminess against the charred edges. It was a good sign when Dining Companion 2 glanced quickly at everyone, apologized, and picked the chops up with his fingers so he could eat the remainder of his pork like spare ribs.
Dining Companion 3 tried the crispy chicken, which lived up to its name. Slightly larger than bite-size, the morsels of chicken were coated in a batter that provided a satisfying crunch before giving way to tender meat. Made to a spice level 5, the heat elevated the dish and brought alive sweet slivers of onions, shredded basil, and green and red bell peppers. This is an addictive dish, and even when full, it was a real challenge to stop nibbling as the evening waned.
For my entree, I settled on the fried tilapia with chili fish sauce. Next to the pork chops, this was the most impressive meal in terms of presentation: an entire fish glistening with crispy scallions. The dish required a bit of work to remove the meat from the bones, but was well worth the effort. Flaky and delicate, the pan-fried fish burst with flavor against a tangy, zippy sauce composed of chilies, garlic, and fish sauce.
Since Pad Thai is one of Thailand’s most famous and familiar dishes, we ordered a plate with chicken to share. The noodles, stir fried with scrambled eggs, were evenly coated with a velvety peanut sauce. Topped with bean sprouts and coarsely chopped peanuts, there’s a reason this is a star menu item. Dining Companion 2 added a dash of soy sauce to his plate, while I squeezed lime juice from the provided wedges for an added punch of tartness. Even with four people, we still ended up with ample leftovers.
Throughout our meal, we received friendly, solicitous service without feeling rushed. We were given plenty of time to study the menu, and drinks were immediately refilled. There is a reason Mai Thai remains a perennial favorite with Omahans, both for dine-in and take-out service alike, and this meal underscored why. Let’s just hope the owners revisit the decision to remove favorites such as spring rolls from the menu and that they make sure that popular items like the chicken satay are actually available when ordered.
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