Martha’s Vineyard isn’t exactly a hub for ethnic cuisine, so it’s a bit striking that there are two Thai restaurants — Sai Mai and Bangkok Cuisine — both on the same street: Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
As you turn onto Circuit Ave., immediately on your left is the well-known Ritz Café — most likely not the first place that comes to mind for dining out. But there’s a new twist to the Ritz, I urge you not to knock it till you try it.
Mai, as she likes to be called, moved to the Vineyard in 2006 to work down the street at Bangkok Cuisine. That partnership has since ended, which is all Mai has to say on the matter.
While searching for work in the following months, Mai stayed busy by dutifully practicing her English with a tutor and by volunteering at the Edgartown Council on Aging, a place where she “found a lot of love.” But after a year of fruitless job-hunting, and a family to support, including one young son here and another at university in Thailand, Mai was beginning to despair. When a friend mentioned off-handedly that the Ritz was looking to lease its kitchen, Mai jumped at the opportunity.
At first, the idea of Thai food in a bar was met with uncertainty, but Janet King, a proprietor of The Ritz, gave Mai the go-ahead. With the help of a friend, Mai cleaned, painted, and installed counter space, a new ceiling, and a wok. Then she cleaned some more and Sai Mai was open for business.
That was two years ago. “Sometimes we’re too loud, and they’re too quiet,” Ms. King says teasingly of the relationship between the bar and restaurant.
Incongruity aside, Mai has won over the clientele with her expert cooking. Asked about her specialty, Mai stressed the need for fresh ingredients. “You need to be prepared and know your ingredients.”
The coconut sticky rice with mango is actually a dessert, but I ordered it as an appetizer and was not disappointed. Sticky white rice topped with a creamy coconut sauce, toasted rice, and served with mango is just sweet enough without being overwhelming (even when accidentally ordered pre-meal). Mai’s crab rolls are semi-famous; long and thin, filled with rich creamy crabmeat (similar to the Chinese dish Crab Rangoon) wrapped in a surprisingly light, flaky exterior and served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.
If the Crispy Duck with basil is on special, I strongly recommend it. Tender on the inside with a delectable crispy exterior and the unmistakable aromatic flavor of Thai basil, the perfectly cooked duck was served with a bowl of steaming rice (brown or white).
Thai cooking is often complex, with lots of ingredients, making wine pairing complicated. Luckily, the Ritz stocks two Thai beers, Singha and Chang, which both complement their culinary counterparts nicely.
From the bar, you are likely to catch a glimpse of Mai working steadily, smiling happily, and eagerly awaiting some sign that you are enjoying your meal.
During the day, the dining room is bright and sunny, filled with thriving plants and a statuesque Buddha. At night, dim lights create an (almost) elegant, cozy dining experience. Mai was on a tight budget when redecorating the dining room, but it doesn’t look it. The wood floors have been re-done since the removal of the pool table. The dining tables are refurbished doors, some still with the knob, and the table legs were crafted from driftwood.
When time permits, Mai likes to walk around the dining room, checking on her customers, although that is not a word she would use, “I don’t think about cooking for money, or customers,” she says. “Everyone is a friend.”
Mai works solo in her kitchen, with occasional dishwashing help from her teenage son. Sai Mai is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday, dinner only on Tuesday. It is closed Monday.
Bangkok Cuisine is up the street, at the other end of Circuit Ave. In the kitchen, cooks labor away busily. Small plastic bins overflow with chopped veggies waiting to be sauced, sautéed, and served.
The sunny dining room, with wood floors and photos of sandy beaches, is welcoming and reminiscent of warmer days. The tables are set with elegant plates, bowls, and silverware. As you get acquainted with the menu, waitresses bustle about with offers of tea, Thai iced tea, water, wine, sake, and beer.
When he started out in the restaurant business, owner Sam Sangworn was a fixture in the kitchen. These days he maintains a managerial role at Bangkok Cuisine and the several other restaurants he owns on the Cape. Mr. Sangworn is based in Hyannis but manages to keep tabs on his Vineyard enterprise with monthly visits and a reliable staff.
Like Mai, Mr. Sangworn prefers not to discuss their former partnership, but he says he does not feel any competition with his neighbor. “Everyone can do as they please,” he says.
Bangkok Cuisine MV is going into its sixth season and Mr. Sangworn says that despite the quiet winters, it has been a success. Obtaining a beer and wine license has been a part of that success, although Mr. Sangworn’s wife and business partner was unsure at first.
“She didn’t want the license because she didn’t want people getting drunk,” Mr. Sangworn says. “She wanted it to be a more traditional place.” Bangkok Cuisine now offers a small but inclusive beer, wine, and sake list.
The menu covers several pages of tempting choices, including noodle, rice, and curry dishes. To keep it interesting and to allow the cooks to be creative, there are always chef’s specials, like Crispy Chicken tossed with fresh mango. The most popular Thai dish, Pad Thai, stir-fried rice noodles with egg, scallions, sprouts, peanuts and spices comes with a choice of chicken, shrimp, pork, beef or tofu/veggie.
One of my favorites is the unique Tom Ka Kai soup: chicken in a coconut milk broth, with galanga (part of the ginger family), lime juice, and mushrooms. This soup offers a complex mixture of flavors and textures, “I’ve never tasted something sweet, sour, and spicy all at once,” one enthusiastic diner recently said.
Bangkok Cuisine is open Monday-Saturday from 11 am to 10 pm and Sundays from 4 to 9:30 pm. When you’re off-Island check out their locations in Falmouth, Plymouth, Orleans, and South Dennis.