Review: Pusadee's Garden
The interior of Pusadee's Garden, a new Thai restaurant located at 5321 Butler Street in Lawrenceville.
The outdoor pergola at Pusadee''s Garden, a new Thai restaurant located at 5321 Butler Street in Lawrenceville.
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Pusadee's Garden in Lawrenceville could as easily be called Pusadee's Kitchen. That's where you'll find Pusadee Tongdee, primary cook and part owner.
The garden part refers to a kempt, beautifully landscaped back courtyard with as many tables as the indoor dining room. Some are covered by umbrellas. Others are housed in a vine- and flower-covered pergola, sufficiently lush to keep out a light rain.
The restaurant -- at the former site of La Filipiniana -- is quite a family affair, with Tongdee's daughters, Busaba and Watcharee, and her son, Tony, all helping out. Watcharee takes care of the garden, where they grow mint, basil, cilantro, kafir lime leaves and more; Busaba and Tony help in the kitchen, while Tony's wife, Ta, is in the dining room.
The Tongdee family already had an impressive presence in the Pittsburgh food scene. Busaba and Watcharee are part of the team behind the elegant, excellent Thai restaurant Typhoon in Shadyside. While the relationship between the restaurants is primarily familial (and certainly friendly), customers of both will recognize a number of common dishes, many of them Tongdee family recipes, including grilled pork meatballs, skewered on sugarcane ($5.50) and kao soi, egg noodles with shallots, and pickled mustard greens and yellow curry sauce ($11.50-$13.50).
Think of Pusadee's Garden as a more casual and less expensive take on Typhoon. The interior dining room, done in shades of gray and white, with its painted tin ceiling and walls, modern furniture and white lantern covered lights captures some of Typhoon's cool elegance, without the glitz and glamour that encourages dressing up and ordering cocktails -- good thing, because Pusadee's Garden is BYOB.
2 stars = Very good
1 star = Good
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
2 stars = Very good
5321 Butler St.
Hours: Monday-Friday, lunch menu, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Friday, 2:30-10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, dinner, noon-10 p.m.
Basics: Thai home cooking with all the expected classics as well as a few more unusual dishes; lovely setting, very casual service.
Recommended dishes: Curry puffs, tom yum soup, cabbage salad, street noodles No. 1, eggplant basil, crispy tilapia, thai custard with black sticky rice, mango and sticky rice, coconut ice cream.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads, $3-$10; noodles, $11.50-$14.50; curries, $12-$14; rice dishes, $10.50-$13.50; specialties, $12.50-$18.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged on weekends; BYOB, corkage $1 per glass.
Noise level: Outside, low; inside, potentially very loud.
Still, the restaurant is slightly more expensive than many neighborhood Thai restaurants. The higher prices are accounted for in the lovelier setting and also in a fair portion of the menu, which livens up the usual pad thai and green curry with slightly less ubiquitous options. A mouth-tingling tom yum soup with a few sweet medium-sized shrimp ($5) was the perfect choice for shaking off the doldrums of a humid summer evening -- I asked for a spice level of 10, and while it didn't consistently translate to all the dishes in the order, the soup was very spicy. Happily, that heat was married with that particular perfumed sourness of lemongrass broth, with the heavenly aromas to match.
Shredded cabbage salad, described as Thai cole slaw, was crunchy and refreshing ($6). Alternate bites with curry puffs ($5), little pastry hand pies filled with kabocha squash and Asian sweet potato ($5), for a fabulous mix of temperatures, textures and flavors. Steamed pork dumplings ($5.50) were perhaps a bit oversteamed, but the moist, ground pork had lovely hints of coriander.
I wanted to like the distinctive crispy rice cakes, little rectangles of puffed rice topped with a sauce made from ground up shrimp, pork, peanuts and coconut milk ($6). Unfortunately, the texture of the cakes too closely resembled Styrofoam and the sauce tasted of little but peanuts. Next time I'll try the crispy shrimp cake ($7) instead.
While the appetizers are generally solid, there are so many interesting entrees it might make more sense to save your appetite for the main course. The menu lists "special noodle dishes" above less pedigreed "noodles," and special attention should be paid to both lists. The spicy duck noodles ($14.50) were a solid choice, the rice noodles coated with a spicy black soy sauce, which retained that distinctive saltiness without letting it overwhelm the dish. A reasonable portion of duck breast was relatively tender, although it also tasted a little more of the sauce than it did of duck.
Street noodles No. 1 ($13) had a lovely foundation of rice noodles studded with bits of bright green baby bok choy and scallions. Unfortunately, the chunks of chicken had clearly been fried in advance and held. The meat was still moist, but the breading was soft and chewy rather than crispy.
The green curry with beef was the most disappointing dish by far, the curry itself neither sweet nor flavorful, with beef overcooked until it acquired a gray tinge and a distinctly tough texture ($13).
Although beef was sometimes neglected, seafood got the attention it deserved. Shrimp, although never overly large, were consistently cooked perfectly. Crispy tilapia ($15) was deserving of the name, the large filet curled up in a fighting stance from the heat of the oil and the well-browned crust giving way to a moist, sweet interior. The sauce was a lovely mix of savory and sweet, although it had more sweet onion and less chile than I expected from the traditional three-flavor sauce (the flavors it refers to are sweet, sour and spicy).
Eggplant with tofu and basil sauce ($12.50) was a nuanced, healthful stir-fry with tons of basil flavor. The simply prepared tofu was used more for texture than flavor, while meltingly tender Japanese eggplant was the real focus of the dish.
Overall competence suggests that problem dishes may be the result of an overburdened kitchen, too busy to consistently taste sauces for balance and ensure that meats haven't been overcooked, while also paying attention to how long each table has waited for the next course. Sometimes it was clear that our dishes were held up by the kitchen, not by slow service.
At the same time, dining room service could be faster. During my visits two servers were covering both seating areas as well as doing hostess duty. Getting seated took a little longer than one might hope. The servers were pleasant, but were overwhelmed and not as efficient as they could have been. Expect long waits between courses, and don't be shy about asking for refills on water, extra plates or anything else you might need. Everything gets done, just very slowly.
But if you're sitting outside over a bottle of wine on a lovely summer evening, you probably won't care how long you've been lingering. Make sure you stay for dessert. Mango with sticky rice ($5.50) is always delicious but here, where it's only served during mango season, you'll find exceptionally flavorful fruit and expertly cooked rice enriched with just the right amount of coconut milk. For a slightly more savory option, try sweet black sticky rice topped with an eggy Thai custard.
Last, but certainly not least, you can't leave without trying the intoxicating rich coconut ice cream ($4.50). Even if you've never been a fan of coconut, you are likely to be converted. A few bites will cool a chile-burnt tongue much faster than a glass of water. If you end with this ice cream I can practically guarantee you'll leave with a sweet taste lingering in your mouth.