Don't go to Map of Thailand because you're craving mango fried rice or Massaman curry. Go because the food is very good — fresh, flavorful, interesting and made from scratch.
Although many of today's most inventive American chefs take inspiration from the cuisines of other countries, ethnic restaurants often get sidelined when it comes to conversations about the best places to eat; Map of Thailand might not even be on your radar. If that's the case, then it's time to set your GPS for this Asiatown destination.
For further motivation, think crispiness. In The Babbo Cookbook, chef Mario Batali writes that describing something with the single word "crispy" sells more dishes than "a barrage of adjectives."
At Map of Thailand, many things on the menu have a high level of crunch. The funnel-shaped shrimp cracker rolls ($4.95) are among my favorites. A deep-fried exterior, made from egg roll wrappers, shatters at the first bite, giving way to the plump crustacean inside. Dip the rolls in the sweet plum sauce for the full experience.
The chili duck entree ($13.95) fills the quest for crispy in a different form. Half a boneless bird is roasted, lacquered with a mildly spicy sauce and fried. The meat is moist, but the skin has snap and crackle. It's pretty too, like most Thai dishes, with a colorful display of fruits and vegetables: yellow pineapple chunks, scallion curls, rounds of orange carrot, broccoli florets and bright green pea pods.
The Map String Beans ($10.95) complement all of the crispiness. The vegetables — along with chicken, cashews and slivered peppers — are cooked in a creamy ground peanut curry sauce with a smooth, rich consistency. That same wonderful, velvety quality defines the seafood coconut soup ($3.25), a big-bowl combination of shellfish, squid, mushrooms and thin slices of galanga root, ginger's more intense cousin.
Co-owner Chin Scott has been cooking professionally for 20 years, including time at the original Lopez and Gonzalez in Cleveland Heights and the next generation Lopez on Lee. He started out as a busboy and dishwasher, working his way up from the sink to the stove, and eventually moving to the front of the house as a manager at Fire on Shaker Square. Scott brings what he's learned from his old boss Doug Katz to his own venture, but the recipes for much of what is served are based in tradition, coming from Scott and co-owner Vicky Sutti's families.
Scott, who doesn't hesitate to put his own spin on classics, roasts rice in a hot, dry pan and grinds it into a powder to give larb ($4.95) — a salad made with sautéed ground chicken, mint, chilies and fresh lime juice — a complex, nutty character.
Sutti also creates adventurous daily specials. Curry puffs ($5.95) — a flaky pastry pocket stuffed with a dense mixture of chicken, sweet potatoes and sugary caramelized onions — are her handiwork.
She also gets the credit for the tofu eggplant ($14.95): Squares of browned bean curd layered with rounds of the slender, thin-skinned Ichiban (aka Japanese) eggplant and bits of ground chicken are coated with a garlicky sauce. It's an impressive sight when it arrives at the table, stacked high on a large glass platter and garnished with whole stems of flash-fried purple basil.
The pad thai is excellent here, but other noodle-based dishes are worth trying as well. I like Khao Soi ($8.25), a soupy stew found in northern Thailand that's made with egg noodles and bean sprouts, and either beef or chicken. A tangle of crusty fried noodles on top provides an appealing contrast to the silky red-curry "gravy."
The establishment doesn't have a liquor license, but some delicious non-alcoholic drinks are available. Jasmine lime iced tea ($2.50) is a refreshing combination that's not overly sweet. The red and white juice-based sangrias ($3.50) are wonderful.
A variety of upscale dining perks, not always the strong suit at ethnic eateries, are standard here. The service is attentive and, except at the busiest hours, often from Sutti herself. The plates are decorated with carved vegetables, and even the straws are topped with the paper wrapper folded origamilike into a rosette. It all adds up to a pleasant, contemporary look.
But at Map of Thailand, unlike some of its trendier counterparts, all of this comes at very affordable prices. That's just one more reason this place is a find.