On the Table: Nicky's Thai Kitchen branches out to Downtown
March 7, 2013 5:00 AM
At Nicky's Thai Kitchen, Downtown, you'll find (clockwise from front): sauce for sukiyaki noodle soup. papaya noodle salad with mussels, taro coconut dessert, coconut jasmine rice, hung ley curry, green ice tea, and sukiyaki noodle soup.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nicky's Thai Kitchen opened in Verona in 2007, the first restaurant from chef-owner Ratthasak "Nick" Insawang, who had moved to Pittsburgh from Kansas City, Mo. After a successful debut in the suburbs, he planned a second location on the North Side, which opened in 2008.
The distance between Verona and the North Side restaurant proved too great for Mr. Insawang to maintain standards customers had grown to expect. After much hand-wringing, he decided to close the Verona location last year.
Wheelchair accessible; BYO; nonsmoking; street parking; credit cards accepted.
"We enjoyed being there and really wanted to stay," said general manager David Brunner. "It was a tough decision because our neighbors liked us. So we made sure another Thai restaurant moved in." Pittsburgh Thai by Boris took over the space.
For his third eatery, Mr. Insawang set sights on the most ambitious location yet: Downtown. Close to the North Side restaurant and double the space, it quietly opened during the December holidays.
Questions remain about Nicky's Thai Kitchen Downtown.
Unlike the North Side restaurant, which is BYO, the 70-seat restaurant on Penn Avenue at Ninth Street will serve liquor, which boosts profits. But when will the restaurant land its liquor license? Three months after opening, Mr. Insawang is still navigating the process. Best case scenario, said Mr. Brunner, is that the restaurant will serve beer, wine and cocktails in April.
And will profits cover Downtown's high rent?
Also in question is whether the neighborhood will accommodate an upscale Thai restaurant for lunch and dinner service. It's more expensive than fast-casual and a diversion from Italian restaurants that proliferate the Golden Triangle.
Business so far is brisk on weekdays for lunch. A line snakes out the door. Inside, servers prod diners through in less than an hour. Clipped service can sometimes mean the delivery of wrong dishes or misinformation. Dinner is less busy.
Nicky's Thai Kitchen is banking on popularity. "We bring a cosmopolitan feel to the neighborhood," said Mr. Brunner. Dark hues, an unadorned bar and Thai artwork frame the interior.
Nicky's Thai Kitchen is one of dozens of Thai restaurants that have reproduced in Pittsburgh, where many neighborhoods now accommodate multiple spots.
The first wave of Thai restaurants in Pittsburgh from a decade ago offered menus of greatest hits. They include dishes such as Massaman curry, a central-Thailand dish with origins to 16th-century Muslim traders .
At Nicky's Thai Kitchen, the beef version of this dish ($12.95) melds with potatoes in a slurry of peanuts, peanut butter, coconut milk and curry paste. Redolent baking spices mingle with bold chili and tamarind. The stew satiates, though it's sweet for my tastes, and likely, diners will be looking for something more adventurous.
Standards such as Massaman curry and pad Thai are not enough to hold diners' attention. Thai restaurants that resonate with Pittsburghers are specializing or diversifying the menu.
Silk Elephant in Squirrel Hill carves a niche with an intriguing cocktail program. Pusadee's Garden in Lawrenceville enchants diners on a verdant patio. And Mr. Insawang's restaurants resonate for their attention to detail.
Nicky's Thai Kitchen Downtown is also offering a more ambitious menu. This is in keeping with what's happening in larger metro areas, where Thai restaurants specialize in dishes from the Isan region or Chiang Mai. They are educating diners beyond Americanized standards.
Though Pittsburgh restaurants don't yet serve catfish or pig intestine soup called tom leuat moo, places such as Nicky's Thai Kitchen are beginning to offer more region-specific dishes with authentic ingredients and preparations.
Mr. Insawang offers kao soy ($11.95) from the north, swapping rice for egg noodles, a Burmese influence. This chicken curry is finished with pickled cabbage, onions and crispy noodles.
Hung ley is another Burmese-influenced dish, a tangy, hot and sweet curry that usually features pork with coconut milk, potatoes and whole peanuts.
Soup sings. A lunch special, lemongrass chicken and rice ($4.50) is a fragrant variation of a winter crowd pleaser. Tom kha ($4.50) with coconut milk and sweet tamarind delivers kick to complement galangal and lemon grass. Duck noodle soup ($8.95) features tender roast bird in soulful broth flavored with anise, garnished with scallions, cilantro and roasted garlic.
Mr. Insawang is restrained when it comes to heat as demonstrated in the mint beef salad ($8.50), tame for a hothead at level five heat index. Rafts of thin-sliced grilled beef blanket greens, radicchio and a flurry of mint, cilantro and basil. This is a satiating lunch when paired with a quintet of steamed dumplings ($7.50), purses of pork to dip in sweet and sour black soy sauce.
Chef specials are often delightful, if somewhat conservative. Some listings change monthly. Choo chee tofu ($8.95) is braised in red curry sauce then dressed in vegetables and kaffir lime leaves that perfume the table. If all vegetarian dishes were this delicious, I'd consider converting.
Chicken black ($8.50) is intense with garlic and rum sauteed with shitake mushrooms in a brown ginger sauce. I wish for dark meat or a more flavorful protein.
For sweet where it's most expected, desserts such as black sticky rice with pumpkin or sticky rice with mango, in season ($5.50) are fun for sharing.
"Nicky likes to offer variety and experiences that are new to people who have never been to our restaurants as well as those who visit often," Mr. Brunner said.
A heartening thing at Nicky's Thai Kitchen for a food-obsessed Pittsburgher is Mr. Brunner's encouragement to order off-menu. When I asked if Mr. Insawang serves larb -- finely chopped meat salads seasoned with fish sauce, spices, chili and lime -- he said the restaurant would be happy to make it.
Now I'm wondering if they'd serve tom leuat moo or catfish, too.