BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
When Jit Carpenter’s health required that she give up her restaurant, Jit’s Thai Cafe, last September, those of us who had fallen hard for the west-side eatery in the few short months it had been open despaired. Jit cooked Thai food as good as we’d eaten in Thailand—spicy hot, fragrant with lemongrass, curry, and lime, complex and delicious. Rumors were rife: her niece was taking over the business, she was renaming the place, she was changing the menu. None of that was particularly reassuring to fans who loved it just the way it was.
Well, we can rest easy: The newly named My Thai Cafe is in more-than-capable hands. Nusawan “Nusy” James is Jit’s niece and this former model and one-time owner of a Thai restaurant in Bangkok knows what she is about. She started by installing her sister and brother, Cartoon and Chart, in the kitchen. Skilled chefs, they learned to cook from their mother and honed their talents in Nusy’s Bangkok place. The siblings moved to Bloomington when Nusy took over. Their kitchen now turns out dishes every bit as delicious as the ones that drew us to Jit’s, including some of their aunt’s recipes, like her wonderful Jit’s Spicy Chicken. (Deep fried, it’s not for the weight conscious but, with a mouthful of crisp, chewy, sizzling goodness, you won’t much care.)
For starters, we are partial to the fresh Thai Basil rolls and the Som Tom—a sweet and salty salad of shredded green papaya with chiles, chopped peanuts, dried shrimp, fish sauce, and lime juice. But for a really splashy opener, order Nusy’s appetizer sampler, a sure-to-spoil-your-appetite combo of chicken satay, crab Rangoon, gyoza (a Thai version of the Japanese pan-fried dumplings), fried tofu, and other delectable bites served with a peanut sauce that is so good you could skip dipping all the tidbits and just eat it with a spoon.
Among entrée noodle options the Pad-Kee-Mao is superb. Colorful and aromatic, its wide rice noodles are laced with peppers, broccoli, fried egg, basil, and a spicy sauce. Or try the Mee-Krob-Lard-Nah with shrimp—a crown of crunchy pan-fried noodles topped with straw mushrooms, broccoli, peppers, and rosy shrimp.
And then there are the curries. Green, red, and yellow Thai curries are hot, sweet, and fragrant—lighter and brighter than their Indian cousins, with ingredients like chiles, coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal root, garlic, kaffir, lime, basil, cilantro, and fish sauce. The Massaman curry is more Indian-like, heartier and warming, with potatoes and peanuts and overtones of cinnamon, cumin, and cloves. All are as good as they come.
Nusy’s touch is not only evident in the menu, but in the décor as well. “Everything I get into has to be gorgeous,” she says, and the restaurant bears her out. Elegant, comfy, full of greenery and the trickle of waterfalls, My Thai Cafe’s elegance bélies its strip mall location. The restaurant, tucked off of West 3rd Street behind Whitehall Plaza, can be hard to find, but persevere. It’s well worth the hunt.