When I walked by the former Darn Good Soup storefront on College Avenue a few weeks ago and saw a giant poster advertising khao man gai, the Thai version of the classic Southeast Asian dish Hainan chicken rice, I knew I had to make an exception to my policy of avoiding American Thai restaurants.
Some people avoid Thai restaurants because the food is spicy or they have a weird hatred of coconut. I do it out of love for a cuisine I know can be so much better than the over-sweetened, pick-your-protein, mediocre canned curry paste food found at so many of them.
Blooming Thai, which opened Oct. 26, is doing its part to remedy that situation.
The restaurant is owned by Joy Cruz, the daughter of the owners of Bloomington institution Siam House. She said she designed the menu to feature the flavorful everyday food she wanted to eat.
Cruz’s family is from the city of Udon Thani, in Thailand’s northeastern Isan region. The influence is evident, with Isan staples such as fermented sausage and larb, a meat salad, though Cruz is quick to say it’s not an Isan restaurant. They also serve pho, custard toast and other foods from across Southeast Asia.
On my first visit, I sat outside in the October evening cool and had the excellent khao man gai. The dish recently made waves on Twitter after a New York Times writer tweeted that she gets upset when she sees pictures of it, because it looks like something only those with special diets or sensitive stomachs, or 4-year-olds with DoorDash accounts, would order.
She retracted her tweet shortly after, and I hope she’s since given Hainan chicken a chance — the combination of poached chicken, rice cooked with chicken fat, ginger-soy-chili sauce and broth is not at all bland or worthy of disdain. It’s comforting and delicious, immensely satisfying and flavorful but not as heavy as some other Thai foods. It certainly can be eaten by those on special diets or lucky 4-year-olds, but I find it just as pleasurable as an omnivorous adult.
In Thailand, chicken and rice is a cheap, light meal so I was surprised to see it cost $15.
However, when they brought out a literal platter of food for me I understood. It had a rice cooker’s worth of rice, and enough chicken for two meals. I took half home and still overate. It was just what I needed. I had planned to visit my father in Thailand this winter, but the coronavirus put an end to that. The staff was sweet, and while it was too cold to pretend I was on my dad’s island, I’d found a bit of Thailand here.
On a subsequent visit I ordered namtok beef, $9, and spicy catfish, $16, to go. I was again a little ambivalent about the prices — I’m on a student budget. However, the food was enough for three large meals, though I made extra rice.
The spicy catfish was fantastic — large chunks of fried catfish in a chili sauce with aromatic slivers of lime leaf mixed in, crispy, spicy and herbal. The namtok beef, beef with roasted rice powder, chilis, shallots and herbs on lettuce, was just OK at first.
However, when I ate it cold the next morning the flavors had melded into deliciousness. I ordered everything “Thai spicy” and while it was pleasantly hot, I wasn’t crying into my Fanta like I would have been in Thailand, which was probably fine.
Cruz said she took cooking classes in Thailand before opening the restaurant, including a monthlong boba course and one on cakes. The cake selection includes a rich and on-trend Basque cheesecake and tea-flavored crepe cakes. Their boba menu is extensive, including varieties topped with cheese cream foam and that other 2020 food craze, dalgona coffee.
The restaurant interior is unrecognizable from the Darn Good Soup days — it’s a riot of color and pattern, with comfy booths and chairs, brought together by a blue, gold and floral theme and a muzak soundtrack.
It’s a small, busy place, and I can’t in good conscience recommend eating inside right now. However, the food works perfectly for takeout, and when summer comes, their patio will be a nice place to sit with a glass of wine and some cake, watching the world go by.
A wooden sign by the takeout counter says “Do more of what makes you happy.” In my case, that means order more khao man gai…