Malai Kitchen in Dallas' West Village has been a bit of a sleeper. It opened in the spring with a surprising lack of fanfare, given its high-profile location in the space that held the once-popular Tom Tom Noodle House. But Malai has slowly, steadily emerged as a go-to spot for excellent Thai and Vietnamese.
If you look at the pedigree of owners Braden and Yasmin Wages, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Both are graduates of Cornell University, and both worked for Hillstone property R+D Kitchen. Their menu does two things: authentic dishes such as Thai coconut soup, and upscale entrees like grilled salmon and coriander chicken. Either way, you can't go wrong.
Malai's rendition of green papaya salad ($10) exemplified the classic Thai flavor combination of sweet, tart and hot. The salad -- more of a slaw, really -- had thin shreds of green papaya, plus shredded carrot, julienned red and green bell pepper, fresh mango, chopped peanuts, and mint in a juicy, chile-laced dressing. The papaya soaked up some of the dressing so that it had a soft, marinated texture that made you want to scarf it whole.
The salad also had one significant ingredient that departed from the usual green papaya salad: chopped candied bacon, which gave it a smoky, salty tang but made it a nonvegetarian dish. (The menu says that most dishes can be prepared in vegetarian versions.)
Lemongrass soup ($6 small, $10 large), served in a cool angled bowl, had a clear hot-and-sour broth that contained tender butterflied shrimp, thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, almost-firm cherry tomatoes that caved instantly in your mouth, plus loads of fresh cilantro. You can specify your desired level of heat; medium had me dabbing a tear from my eye and appreciating the warm glow on my lips. I appreciated that it came in a smaller size option so I could sample other items.
Drunken noodles ($13) were incredibly addictive, with broad, flat rice noodles combined with beef and vegetables in a spicy red glaze. The vegetables, including onion, bell pepper and tomatoes, were cooked but still had some firmness, providing textural contrast to the chewiness of the noodles. The beef was chopped tenderloin, ridiculously tender, with appealing browned edges. Lots of fresh Thai basil gave it a sweet licorice flavor. Underneath everything was a cache of fresh iceberg lettuce -- so refreshing to find and mix into the warm noodles.
One way we could tell this was no ordinary Asian joint: It serves a complimentary amuse. It was a knob of sticky rice, wrapped in a banana leaf, with a soft eggplant spread on the side. Our accommodating server told us to break the rice off in pieces and eat it with our hands. Another way we could tell this was no ordinary Asian joint was by the wine and cocktail list, devised by local mixologist Jason Kosmos, with drinks ($9) such as the Vang, made with rum, ginger beer and lime.
Among the desserts ($7), coconut cream pie was exceptional, unique and very rich. The crust was made from shredded, toasted coconut, while the coconut curd had a silky, firm texture that was more like Key lime pie. The "cream" topping was actually meringue, a nice twist, and it came with a small scoop of coconut ice cream, with tiny coconut shreds throughout. Unlike any traditional coconut pie, that's for sure.