A South Austin favorite continues to delight with authentic and craveable Thai dishes
by Karen Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
Do you like Thai food? Of course you do. Everybody likes Thai food. Even my staid Midwestern in-laws in Canton, Ohio, like Thai food. What once seemed exotic has become a staple in the American diet. Which means it’s also gotten homogenized, predictable and, well, a little boring.
It’s time to shake up your Thai routine — and there’s a funky little café in South Austin that’ll do just that. Thai Fresh, opened a decade ago by Thailand native Jam Sanitchat and her husband, Bruce, serves all the classics you know and love, but also some unexpected stunners not found on most menus.
Some of my favorite dishes at Thai Fresh are the simplest, like the khao man kai: steamed rice topped with tender shredded chicken, cucumber slices, fresh herbs and an addictive ginger-garlic-soy-lime sauce. It’s honest, humble and delicious — the kind of dish I could eat every day (and many people in Thailand do). In a similar vein is the kao ka moo: moist shredded pork roasted in five spice powder and served atop rice with steamed gai lan broccoli, a sprinkling of chopped herbs and a zippy sauce. Like the chicken rice, it’s not flashy or complicated, but it’s terrific. And in today’s over-the-top Instagram food scene, it’s refreshing that Thai Fresh isn’t afraid to be subtle.
Although curries are ubiquitous in Thai cuisine, Sanitchat’s are something special. My server recommended the kaeng karee, a mild Indian-inspired yellow curry that had incredible complexity and a surprising afterburn. I appreciated the option to choose not only my preferred protein — shrimp, beef, pork, chicken, tofu, tempeh or pork belly — but also two seasonal vegetables. Khao pad sapparod, aka pineapple fried rice, typically a cloying sweet canned-fruit disaster, is a revelation at Thai Fresh. Here it dazzles with bright herbs and curry, studded with just the right amount of freshly diced pineapple, creating the perfect balance of sweet and spicy, hot and cold, rich and refreshing.
For starters, tom kha gai coconut soup is always a fan favorite, but Thai Fresh elevates it. Expertly seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, cilantro, makrut lime leaves, mushrooms and your choice of protein, the lusciously creamy coconut broth maintains a balanced tartness. If you’re a cracklings junkie like me, don’t miss the larb nang gai tod appetizer: chicken skin fried to a crisp golden brown, then lightly tossed with lime juice, Thai chiles, cilantro and ground toasted rice. Best paired with an ice-cold beer, and I dare you to eat just one.
Thai Fresh’s reputation for sweets rivals its reputation for savory dishes. Adjacent to the restaurant’s dining room is a bakery and coffee shop that hums throughout the day. Pastry chef Autumn Roe fills its cases with delectable fresh-baked pastries, cakes and pies that are all gluten-free and predominately vegan and organic. Selections rotate with the seasons, like a recent dark-chocolate mocha-mascarpone cake that was glorious.
And then there’s the ice cream. Wildly popular, the nondairy coconut milk ice cream is served alone or with traditional sweet sticky rice and comes in seasonal flavors like lemongrass, cardamom, Thai basil, sweet potato–marshmallow, plus good ol’ chocolate and vanilla. In early 2019, a stand-alone ice cream shop, Gati, will open on the East Side, but until then a truck will sell ice cream from its Holly Street parking lot.
Like the food, the vibe at Thai Fresh is equally authentic. It’s a mellow South Austin mishmash of thrift store furniture, local art on the walls and chill music on the stereo. It’s a principled place that supports dozens of local farmers and vendors and is respectful of its customers’ varied dietary wishes. I like being there. I like eating there. And whenever you’re ready to blow the cobwebs off your Thai routine for something authentic and fresh, head on over.