"Most Thai people (in the United States) don't go out to eat," says restaurateur Ted Durongbhand. Home cooking, apparently, provides a much more authentic experience for those longing for a taste of Thailand.
But it wasn't just the quest to provide East Bay denizens with real Thai flavors that motivated Durongbhand to open Mahout this past summer. Rather, it was his love of animals, particularly elephants.
Mahout is the Hindi word describing traditional elephant keepers in Thailand, and, as explained on the menu, Mahout's "aim is to utilize Thai cuisine as a channel to raise public awareness about the plight of Asian elephants."
One couldn't do this with undistinguished Thai fare; thankfully for Durongbhand's mission, Mahout's cuisine stands out from the crowd. The house-ground curry paste (yellow, green and red) has a freshness that stands head and shoulders above the premade variety, which, if dirty little secrets be told, are used in some Thai establishments. Like virtually all of its other dishes, Mahout's five curries can be made mild, medium or "Thai-hot" and are prepared on the thin side: rich, milky, brothy and delicious enough to lap up like soup. We had the green curry with chicken ($8.95), which included pieces of chicken breast and an array of vegetables (zucchini, green beans, eggplant and peppers) that were well-prepared and still had a little bite. Like most dishes on the menu, our curry could be prepared vegetarian upon request.
Similarly, the pad thai ($8.95) was also better than what you'd get at your "typical Thai place"; for a couple bucks extra, you can get pad thai hor khai ($11), a variation on the old standard, in which generously sized shrimp and rice noodles (which retain a pleasing bit of chewiness) come ensconced in a thin crepe of scrambled egg. The package, which arrives like a wrapped gift, is accompanied by sprouts and chopped peanuts on the side -- a de/reconstructed version of the dish that is well-known in Thailand, but a rare treat stateside.
Mahout also has a decent selection of starters, salads and soups, including papaya salad ($7.95), roti with curry dipping sauce ($5.75, sadly unavailable the night we went), and the Miss J. Lo -- wonton-wrapped shrimp that have been fried to a crisp and served with a sweet sauce ($8.75): "think curvy," the menu states suggestively. The crazy item names, such as the Padma Lakshmi (pad see-e yu, or wide rice noodles, $8.95) or the Bangkok Coup d'Etat (kra-prow fried rice, $8.95) are often phonetic riffs on the Thai monikers, and can be endearing or bewildering. We tried the straightforward Todd's Fish Paté ($5.75), seven small patties of darkly fried fish cutlets that were heady with flavors of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf -- maybe a bit too seasoned, in fact. Thankfully, a sweet cucumber relish on the side provided a nice foil.
Another memorable Thai standard was the tom yum soup. At many establishments, this soup can be quite lean, but Mahout's version was on the richer side, with sweet tomatoes to balance out the more bracing flavors of lime and lemon grass. The small slicks of red oil floating on the top of the broth provided a voluptuous mouthfeel that made the soup more satisfying, reminiscent of a bouillabaisse (albeit one that left your lips agreeably buzzing and warm for several minutes).
We would also order the crab meat fried rice ($12) again. It's a sad commentary on our state of gastronomic affairs when restaurant dishes with crab more often than not contain "krab," rather than the genuine stuff. So it's a pleasure to enjoy this dish in all its subtlety: fried rice made simply with onion, a touch of cilantro and tomatoes. A fine pile of real crab and egg white tops the dish, which is finished with a generous flourish of white pepper. It's an elegant, delicate dish that's worth savoring on its own (rather than overwhelmed by a curry sauce, for example).
Perhaps the most unusual item on offer was one of the four dessert selections: the cheddar ice cream ($3.50). Before U.S. foodies started riffing on cheese ice cream, queso ice cream was already a hit in the Philippines, the homeland of Durongbhand's wife. Mahout's version had a mildly sweet coconutty base, with chunks of medium-sharp chunks of cheese throughout. The sweet-salty combo was classic, and the ice cream was definitely worth a try. (According to Durongbhand, this unusual dessert has been positively received by almost every patron who has sampled it.)
With all these hits, it's hard to believe that Durongbhand has only been in the kitchen for the past three months. He also had no previous restaurant experience, having worked for more than 20 years as a medical imaging technician. However, he found that his previous job didn't provide the most compelling platform from which to engage the public about the exploitation and abuse of animals, the issue he is most passionate about. Food, he thought, would be much better.
That said, there isn't any extreme elephant evangelization at Mahout. The small restaurant (only about eight tables, plus eight seats at the bar) offers some literature that patrons can browse, and the service -- which some diners have complained about, but was fine on the surprisingly slow Saturday night we visited -- comes with a smile and not a speech. The clean lines of the restaurant, with inviting dark wood tables, and teal- and tomato-hued walls, are adorned with tasteful elephant art. Mahout's mission isn't achieved by preaching, but by donating a portion of all profits to organizations that care and advocate for the elephants.
But for most patrons, the food itself seems good enough to keep people coming back. Mahout's commitment to elephant welfare is gravy, so to speak -- a sweet, spicy, garlicky gravy.
* * ½
FOOD: * * ½
AMBIENCE: * * ½
SERVICE: * *
WHERE: 9700 Cedar Blvd., Newark
CONTACT: 510-573-0753, www.mymahouthairesto.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to
3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. daily
VEGETARIAN: Vegetarian options available for many dishes
BEVERAGES: Soft drinks, but no alcohol
RESERVATIONS: Not required
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Parking lot
KIDS: Kid-friendly noodle and rice dishes
PLUSES: Authentic Thai flavors, excellent tom yum soup and pad thai wrapped in egg
MINUSES: A few misses among the appetizers
DATE OPENED: August
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