Fit to be Thai: Ty Fun

Ty Fun Thai Bistro

The cuisine of Thailand grows more popular with Americans every year, though you’d hardly know it in Cleveland. Unlike most other big cities, where you’re likely to find a Thai restaurant on every other block, we have only a handful from which to choose. So the June opening of Ty Fun (pronounced “typhoon”) in the Tremont neighborhood is reason enough to celebrate. Ty Fun’s skillfully prepared food, presented beautifully in an easy-on-the-eyes dining room, and superb pad thai give additional reasons to thank the culinary gods.

With just 36 seats or so, Ty Fun is likely to be crowded even during the week. Play it safe: Make a reservation.

Ty Fun's pad thai is a pitch-perfect blend of rice noodles, shrimp, tofu, egg, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts.
Photo by Brad Ronevich

Soothing tones of green and beige finish the dining room, which features a striking upholstered banquette — topped with a row of square pillows covered in Thai silk — that lines one entire wall. The pillows provide a dramatic splash of color when no one’s seated at the banquette; when the banquette is occupied, they cushion patrons’ backs and make for comfortable dining.

Bamboo place mats, cleverly folded napkins, square plates, handsome glassware and Thai-designed flatware (the Thai people stopped using chopsticks about midway through “The King and I” — when Deborah Kerr taught Yul Brynner to eat with knife and fork) create a dramatic and beautiful tabletop design.

Thailand sits between India and China, so naturally the food is heavily influenced by both these powerful cultures. Noodle dishes, spring rolls and crisply fried wontons testify to the Chinese influence. Curries and many of the rice dishes reflect India’s sway. But, while India and China have influenced Thai cooking, they haven’t taken it over.

Thai food is simple, fresh and utterly reliant on local ingredients. Prominent flavors include basil, galangal (in the ginger family), chili peppers, tamarind, coconut milk, lemon grass and — like all the cuisines of Southeast Asia — salty fish sauce, called nam pla in Thailand.

Thai food can be mighty hot, like Indian and some Chinese dishes, but many preparations, curries for example, ease back on the spice and replace it with bouquets of fresh herbs or with a splash of coconut milk to cool and soothe the palate. As a result, when Thai food burns, it tends to burn briefly, then to replace the heat with the aroma of basil, cilantro or coconut.

Ty Fun excels at appetizers. I doubt if you can go wrong with any starter.

While not originally a Thai dish (most food historians trace it to nearby Indonesia), chicken satay ($6.95 for an order of four skewers) is one of Ty Fun’s most popular appetizers, and with good reason. It’s outstanding. Breast meat is pounded thin, threaded on a skewer and marinated in spices, coconut milk and fish sauce. The chicken is grilled until cooked through and a bit crispy around the edges, and served with a peanut-based dipping sauce. At Ty Fun the sauce has a nice mouth-warming finish, and it’s accompanied by a cooling salad of cucumber bits in rice vinegar.

Thai spring rolls ($5.95 for four) are another delight. The filling of ground pork, “crystal noodles” (a transparent noodle made of mung bean paste), and fine strands of carrot is rolled in a feather-light spring roll skin, deep fried to crispy perfection and served with a luscious dipping sauce redolent of sweet chili peppers and garlic. If you’re tired of the cardboard-flavored, grass-filled egg rolls served by so many of the Chinese restaurants hereabouts, these will reawaken your taste buds.

Tod mun pla, fish cakes, are a favorite street food in Thailand. At Ty Fun, they’re about the size of an Oreo cookie, and made of kingfish, ground fine and mixed with fresh herbs, coated in cornstarch and deep-fried. Don’t think of American-style fish cakes; these have a uniquely chewy texture and a complex herby/spicy flavor. They’re served with a dipping sauce of sweet chilis with the surprising crunch of fresh cucumbers and toasted peanuts ($7.95 for a serving of eight cakes).

Other appetizers worth trying include fried wontons, another import from China that the Thais have taken for themselves. They’re filled with a tasty stuffing of ground chicken and shrimp, rich with the aromas of herbs and curry spices. The paper-thin skin is fried crisp, but not greasy ($6.95 for eight wontons). Crispy cups are crunchy cups of pastry dough filled with ground chicken, shrimp and fresh sweet corn, all mildly scented with curry spices ($6.95 for five).

Thailand’s soups are justly famous, and at Ty Fun they are done very well, indeed. Our favorite is tom kha kai, a rich, sweet-and-hot concoction of coconut milk, chicken, lime juice and lemon grass ($3.75).

While in an authentic Thai meal there is no true entrée because all dishes tend to be served at the same time, with rice as the main event and other dishes presented simply to flavor the rice, Ty Fun bows to American eating habits and offers a dazzling array of main courses. You’ll have trouble deciding what to order. Rice or noodles accompany most, and most demonstrate the uniquely Thai interplay of hot and sweet, bland and salty, sour and bitter.

Try, for example, kai ma mung ($12.95), which mixes succulent chicken breast with crunchy cashews, sweet pineapple, tangy onion bits and mouth-warming chili paste. Or for a real taste treat, try pad ma keur ($15.95), a rich stir-fry of Japanese eggplant, shrimp, chicken and pork, tossed with scads of basil leaves, ginger and, we suspect, some star anise. It’s a wonderful introduction to the flavors and textures of Thai food.

Seafood lovers may order either deep-fried red snapper ($18.95) or charcoal-grilled salmon ($16.95) topped with a variety of Thai sauces. Choices include chili and garlic sauce, red curry and coconut milk, mixed vegetables with garlic and tamarind. The grilled salmon topped with sweet-and-sour sauce and garnished with pineapple, onions, scallions and tomatoes was outstanding. The salmon filet was fresh and perfectly cooked, while the sauce made a satisfying tart-and-sweet contrast to the richness of the salmon.

Thai curries tend to be less spicy-hot than Indian curries — though here, you can order your curry as hot as you like. In red curry with beef (beef panang, $13.95), the beef (I think it was top round) was a bit dry, but the sauce of red curry paste and coconut milk was delicious, especially when spooned over the jasmine rice that accompanied the dish.

Pad thai is probably the most popular Thai dish in the United States. I’ve tried it throughout the country, but Ty Fun’s version is the best I’ve ever had. Here, pad thai ($11.95) is a stir-fry of perfectly cooked rice noodles, about the thickness of Italian linguine pasta, good-sized shrimp that’s sweet and fresh, tofu chunks and eggs garnished with raw bean sprouts and ground peanuts. Instead of the gloppy, opaque sauce that ruins this dish at so many restaurants, at Ty Fun the flavors unroll on the tongue — you can actually pick out hints of lime, garlic, fish sauce,chilis, shallots and tamarind. Don’t be afraid your server will think you’re utterly predictable by going for the cliché; order it anyway.As you would expect in a Buddhist country, Thailand has developed a rich and varied vegetarian cuisine. At Ty Fun, you can sample vegetarian appetizers, soups and entrées. All vegetarian entrées are priced at $10.95 and all feature mixed vegetables and tofu in either garlic, peanut or sweet-and-sour sauce.

Ty Fun Thai Bistro, 815 Jefferson Ave., Tremont, (216) 664-1000. Hours: Mon-Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5 - 11 p.m. Closed Sundays. The restaurant is not licensed to serve spirits or wines, but you may bring your own bottle. Both the dining room and restrooms are located on the ground floor (one step up from the sidewalk into the dining room, another step up into the restroom). Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

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