Sawadee Thai is such a place.
With the closing of Avenues Bakery, local residents and office dwellers have slim pickings on this stretch of South Temple when it comes to finding a bite. Sawadee offers an edible oasis and a less frenetic commute, which is why the restaurant always seems to be busy during lunch. With a rather large menu, there is usually something for everyone to eat. Vegetarians and omnivores can dine without conflict. And the $7.45 price tag at lunch for salad, rice, a crunchy spring roll and a choice of two dishes doesn't hurt either.
The food is consistently good, but in my encounters never great. Still, with such reasonable prices, I don't generally expect knock-your-socks-off meals. And Sawadee plays its role for Thai food lovers who pledge allegiance to one venue or another for various reasons.
Case in point: Spice freaks may find Sawadee tame. In fact, during several meals, I was never asked how spicy I liked my curries, noodle dishes or stir-fries. Each one came out rather mild. Heat lovers, such as The Voracious One, left disappointed with his panang curry ($10.50) while less robust eating buddies didn't complain.
It is not necessarily the spice that I'm after. Rather, I go for complexity and nuance from a cuisine built on fish sauce, ginger, galangal, garlic, chilies and Thai basil, among other aromatics. And as pleasant as many of Sawadee's dishes are, I found them simply too mild in every sense.
The ever-popular pad Thai ($9.95) was abundant, sizzling hot and overwhelmingly sweet. A generous squeeze of fresh lime did little to make the dish sing. But again, the mild-heat-loving dining companions ate it with gusto.
But we all noticed the unappealing sweetness of the tom yum goong soup ($4.50; $10.50). The appeal of this lovely, transparent red soup is generally in the tug-of-war among spicy, sweet and sour, which wasn't in our bowlful. Same goes for the fluffy Thai curry puff appetizer, filled with a potato puree that was vibrant to the eye, but lackluster on the tongue.
Salad lovers will have no trouble finding something crisp and refreshing here, whether it's the som tum (green papaya salad, $8.95) or the yum neua (sliced beef salad, $10.95). But in the chopped meat of the larb salad ($9.95) the meat was more for texture than flavor and the overall effect was sweet and bland in flavor and color.
Curries tend to be a better option. Again, if you want heat, make sure you ask for it; otherwise it'll arrive as demure as the potatoes and baby carrots in the Massaman curry ($10.50), for example.
But the favorite item overall hides deep in the menu, in the fish section. Pla lad pick ($13.95) features chunks of deep-fried Atlantic salmon tossed with stir-fried bell peppers, button mushrooms, baby corn and chilies in a viscous ginger sauce. The amber-hued coating is sweet, but applied judiciously to the tender chunks of salmon and crisp-tender vegetables. It's a good dish and a nice break from the usual curries.
Service is friendly and genuine, though servers lack knowledge about the svelte and varied wine list. Sometimes the staff seems stretched a bit thin during busy times when water glasses sit empty. But, it's not their fault if the kitchen's timing is off - as was the case for a neighboring table that waited a long while before their entrees came out. Five minutes later, their appetizer finally arrived. The server seemed embarrassed and profusely apologized.
Sawadee's setting is more distinct and notable than its flavors. Unlike other shoebox-sized or eclectically decorated counterparts, Sawadee is rather sleek. The large dining area feels like an urban loft with tall ceilings, artful lighting and exposed brick walls. The Thai element comes in with colorful portraits and sculptures that seem to glitter at night (check out the large gold-laden wood carving on the back wall). The patio is a pleasant setting for dinner, facing a quieter South Temple and in full view of the sky at sunset.
It's the perfect setting for the fresh mango and sticky rice dessert ($5.95). The glutinous rice is creamy with coconut milk, and fresh mango crowns the plate, compensating with a custardy smoothness and slight acidity from its juices. And yes, it's unapologetically sweet - in this case, just as it should be.
Sawadee: The price is nice, but the menu lacks spice
Overall rating »
Noise » 2 bells
In a nutshell: Popular lunch and take-out spot on a strip of South Temple that's low on restaurant options. Lunch combos are a great deal and outdoor dining during warmer months is a treat. For dinner try the pla lad pick (deep-fried salmon with fresh chilies and vegetables in a ginger sauce).
Where » 754 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City; 801-328-8424
Web site » sawadee1.com
Hours » Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$
Liquor » Beer and wine
Corkage » $9
Reservations » Accepted
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » Yes
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » All major