Thai food in a donut shop seems to be the new Thing, since we’re largely ignoring the supermarket-donut-quality ridiculous sugarbombs at Voodoo and the “cronut,” which I simply don’t have the heart to Google and understand. Yelp tells me that they’re selling Thai food at donut shops in Santa Barbara, CA, Lawton, OK, and Annapolis, MD, so something cool is sneaking around urban centers and infiltrating small towns. I love it.
And being on top of trends, I’m pleased to report that we have not one but TWO donut shop Thai places, and one of them is actually good.
I taste-tested both of them in a quick and dirty fashion, ordering a classic dish at each, Chicken Cashew stirfry (or perhaps pork, if I was scared to order chicken).
Master Donuts in Springfield (3177 Gateway), is in a little strip mall across the street from the big box annexes fringing the mall on Gateway. The dish came out heavy with salt and very little flavor I could identify as Thai, including the taste of fish sauce. There were a few tiny, broken pieces of raw cashew sprinkled on top of steamed low quality, tasteless pork swimming in soupy liquid and some tired steamed vegetables. The rice wasn’t good, either, a cheap Chinese variety. Although everyone was polite to me, the place was silent and heavy and almost sterile and cold. Neither the cook nor the clerk could care less about the food or their work, it seems, and the atmosphere was so toxic with unhappiness I left as soon as I could. Avoid. Not even worth the $6 an entree price.
It’s Thai Food was a different story. Inside Lee’s Donuts (1950 Echo Hollow Rd Ste A) in the same mall as Big Lots, it used to be a food cart in the parking lot, but they moved inside the restaurant. It’s Thai Food is run by a couple, with the wife as cook and the husband as extroverted front of house. A cute kid shows up now and again, playing quietly in the back. It’s an extremely modest place with no ambiance and a TV in the corner, with a constant stream of customers.
Here’s the difference between the two donut shop Thai places: It’s Thai Food is actually a real neighborhood joint, with pictures of customers and letters on the walls, a menu that aims to educate with photos, and kind service-oriented ownership. I overheard the owner talking about the increase in overhead for donut supplies to a regular customer, and it seems times are tough. But then I heard him saying that when neighborhood kids come in for a donut and they don’t quite have enough cash, he gives them the donut because they clearly want it. (And just a note to the few people who are excited by that: don’t be a dick and try to take advantage. Instead, do what the customer did, give an extra buck or two in tips to offset the cost of this kind man’s charity.)
Anyway, wow, I’m getting grumpier and grumpier writing this. Sorry. The food at It’s Thai Food (top picture) is really the most appetizing of all the low-budget Thai I’ve tried in the past couple of weeks. The cook uses dark soy to help caramelize the chicken, and the dish boasts an appetizing array of peppers and mushrooms. It was too salty, a common problem for Thai food, but it tasted quite good, better than many of the more standard Thai places in town.
There were a number of less common dishes being served that didn’t appear on the written menu, especially noodle dishes, so I’ll be back. I really appreciated little touches like the kind of odd aluminium foil boat in which my meal was served, clearly added so the sauce wouldn’t soak into the paper plate below, and the little cone full of fried tofu which helped keep it crisp. The peanut sauce, something I don’t love, was actually notably better than average so I took it home to use as a dip with green beans. Also served: Eugene’s heroine, aka teriyaki chicken, and a few common dishes that would draw the same crowd: yakisoba noodles and orange chicken and kung pao. Prices were a skosh higher than at Master’s but still cheap — my entree was $7.50.
On a slightly different trend-spotting note, please be aware of our two Thai food carts.
I found Drumrong Thai to be adequate when I went a few years ago, and found the atmosphere in the middle of a hot triangle in the middle of two busy streets in the Whiteaker stifling and loud, plus it took forever to get my food, so I haven’t been back. It may be better now; it’s been a few years. Let me know.
Ubon Thai out on Highway 99 (670 Hwy 99) — a joint that many people swear by as authentic and wonderful — was ok. It was, contrary to popular belief, not a rare outpost of different types of Thai food but the same stuff you get elsewhere in Eugene, a collection of Americanized standards using packaged shortcuts just like every other place uses. It’s cheap, fast food, really, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And it must be a great relief to the neighborhood, which is a depressed area way out on the way to the airport. And to their credit, they’re honest about the prefab nature of the curries; you can see the plastic tubs of Mae Ploy curry pastes lined up above the prep space. If you want to taste the difference that homemade curry pastes make in a final dish, go to Noodle N Thai in Springfield on Main around 5th. There, you’ll start to learn about the wonders of authentic Thai food.
The vegetables in the stirfries are all a melange of pre-cut carrot, onion, broccoli, peppers, and snow peas, and they serve really standard dishes and the usual yakisoba. They really need to remove the broccoli from the mix. Broccoli, a substitute for gai lan, has no place in Thai food and it’s revolting once overcooked and soggy in sauce.
Nevertheless, the cook has a pretty good palate, if my single dish (the same cashew stirfry with pork I ordered elsewhere, hold the broccoli) is a guide. Way too much liquid pooled up on my plate and waterlogged my rice, but the dish was good enough, cooked at too low a temperature but still decent. The fresh spring rolls had larger-than-average rice noodles in the stuffing, which was odd but not a dealbreaker, and the spicy peanut sauce was peanut sauce with spice in it. Nothing unusual and a bit of a disappointment, given how much it was talked up. Oh well.
The atmosphere I did find oddly charming, mostly the outdoor plaza space surrounded by plants and tinkly sparkly things than the somewhat claustrophobic attached house interior, but they’re welcoming spaces. Ubon is run by a couple, she of Thai extraction and he not, and they’re terribly nice. I’d probably go again if I were in the neighborhood, and I’d urge them to branch out into more interesting territory in the specials, at least. Different vegetables and not so many in one dish would be really welcome, as would be regional delights.