Paul Thai is on a commercial strip of Plainfield Avenue, alongside a barber shop and cash advance store. A pretty sign (blue and yellow, with stylized flower petals) hangs above the storefront. The drawn curtains prevent viewing into the restaurant, adding a sense of mystery, or at least keeping the heat out.
Open the door, open the curtains and you will be greeted by a small dining room. The restaurant can accommodate up to 32 people; handwritten notes stuck to the wall remind visitors that this is a small business and ask them not to stay longer than an hour (due to COVID). The hostess / waitress, often the owner’s daughter, will set you up; like her mother, she is friendly and efficient.
A sign of the times, hand sanitizer is on the table, just like plastic-wrapped utensils. Unroll the neatly folded towel, place it on your lap and open the menu.
It will take some time to decide what to order. There are 12 single entries. The rangoon crab is not Thai; indeed, there is evidence that they originated from the San Francisco sun in the 1950s. Consider them anyway. Here they arrive in the form of small pouches whose bold bottoms and curly tops make them look like nothing more than curved bags of money. Inside is rich, thick cream cheese and crab spots.
Another delicious, albeit non-traditional, dish is chicken wings. Look at the plate: it could be a modernist work of art, with the thin strips of carrot, deliberate gravy dots, thinly sliced green onions and, in the corner, a thick carrot slice carefully cut into a star. Although coated in a mild and slightly spicy sauce (Paul Thai sauce, depending on the menu), the skin of the wings is remarkably crisp, providing salinity and contrast in texture.
But maybe you’d prefer the chicken satay: skewers of chicken meat, not charred like you see in other restaurants, infused with an almost floral taste. The satay sauce is nutty and tasty, like peanut butter’s wilder brother.
But did you have the Gai Yang? I know, chicken breast isn’t the most exciting of meats. But what if it was grilled over charcoal and coated in a rich, dark umami sauce? It’s served with steamed asparagus, broccoli, miniature corn, carrots, and snow peas, to make you feel virtuous (in fact, the veggies are crisp and tasty).
If you’d rather hug the shore, there’s nothing wrong with Chicken Fried Rice. In fact, there are a lot of things with it, including the big slices of cucumber and tomatoes. It’s very tasty, and has a hint of heat. As with all entrees, this is more than enough for a single meal. Share, or know that it heats up well.
At this point, your belt is almost dead. You will have to come back. When you do, greeted with the same warmth and efficiency, shown at the same booth, consider ordering the drunk noodles. It’s a dish unlikely to spruce up a magazine cover, with its predominantly brown colors.
Taste it, however. Take a large flat noodle, prick a piece of protein (maybe you ordered chicken, or shrimp, or scallops, or…). Also get bell pepper, onion and tomato. You won’t have to search for the spicy basil sauce; it cannot be missed.
The dish is spicy, yes, but just spicy enough; the heat is not intense but asserts itself, cutting off the wealth, making itself known but never making you regret your order. It is a complex, well-seasoned dish with lively flavors. You won’t want a glass of milk to drown out the pain, but you won’t be bored either.
The hostess will speak with you, if you ask. She will share that her mother had owned a restaurant in Florida many years ago (“I was that high,” the hostess says, pointing to a spot a few feet above the ground). They opened Paul Thai a little over a year and a half ago. The pandemic hasn’t helped matters, but the restaurant maintains a vibrant take-out business; While you’re at it, you might notice that several other people walk inside, but none of them sit and eat.
Pity. How long has it been since you sat in a restaurant, closed off from the outside world by curtains, listened to foreign soft rock and eaten good food? OK, maybe soft rock isn’t the main attraction. But the food is quite special, you realize. And there is so much more to try next time. You pay your bill and leave, knowing that soon enough you’ll be back.
Paul Thai Restaurant
3912 Plainfield Ave. NE, Grand Rapids
Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day