703 Princes Highway Tempe, NSW 2044
|Opening hours||Tue-Fri, lunch 11am-3pm; Tue-Sun, dinner 5.30-10pm|
|Phone||(02) 8668 4800|
Let's call it highway dining. Pick any roadside in Thailand, and chances are you'll find an unassuming shack serving great fresh food, such as grilled fish, marinated meats on sticks, and steaming stir-fries piled with great heaps of ultra-fresh vegies.
Bai Tong Thai, which opened in Tempe a year ago, is far fancier than this - there's a roof, kitchen and comfortable sit-down furniture - but its chef, Pom Gongkam, has an authentic streetside pedigree. Descended from a line of roadside vendors and chefs, she learnt to cook at her mother's food stall at a Chiang Mai street market.
After university, she returned to the province to train in traditional techniques (aka no measuring cups or modern appliances) before landing in Australia, where she spent two decades at Prasit's Northside Thai. In keeping with the roadside theme, her new Tempe home is slotted among a strip of industrial shops opposite the suburb's monolithic furniture store, Ikea.
On a windy Saturday night, a crew of party-goers emerges from the darkness, but otherwise the lights of the eatery are the only welcoming sign around.
Inside, it's a battle to keep the gale at bay, so we request a table away from the door. It turns out to be a good decision, moving us away from the busy takeaway area at the front and closer to the goings-on - and tempting fragrances - in the open kitchen.
Looks-wise, the venue is simple, but it has a few homey touches - crimson features here and there, plus photos of Thai street scenes on the wall. It's also handy to have the kitchen so close, so we can pepper Gongkam with questions, which she answers ably.
Our waitress, who has been called in as a last-minute stand-in to help during a sudden staffing shortage on the night of our visit, isn't as confident, but serves us swiftly and gladly.
Gongkam's cooking shows plenty of flair and flamboyance. Take the go-to starter, steamed purple dumplings (choor muang) filled with caramelised peanut and smoked duck mince. Worked into ornate floral shapes and arranged artfully on a row of spoons, each one is filled with a sweet, gelatinous meat far richer and denser than other Asian varieties.
There's even the occasional incursion into ''dude food''. The idea of Asian tacos might sound strange but don't be put off - the mini tacos with chicken, prawns and tofu (kanom buang) are actually a modified version of a traditional Thai dish. They're made from super-crunchy pastry, though we have to scratch around at the bottom to find the meat.
The simplest starter turns out to be the tastiest - miang tofu, golden piles of tofu, cashews and coconut on betel leaves, which taste sweet and are intensely crunchy.
For mains, the crispy pork belly with green beans has plenty of crunch and chilli, while the real show-off - lemongrass fish - is an elaborate tower of whole fried barramundi. The flesh alone isn't overly exciting, but the chilli dressing adds interest and heat.
Baitong's prawns - king prawns stir-fried in house-made curry paste and served in a whole, fresh coconut - is a sweet, mild concoction with resort-style looks. We spoon great heaps of the golden, creamy mixture from an opening at the top of the nut and, once we're done, Gongkam shows us how to scoop flesh from the inside walls. The soft, delicate slivers are a sweet surprise.
To finish, we try bite-size servings of pandan pudding, sticky black rice and mango ice-cream from the mixed dessert platter, and savour the intense flavours of the ruby-coloured pomegranate and lychee granita.
Considering its humble beginnings, Gongkam's cooking shows a distinctive dramatic streak.
Traditional Thai with creative flair.
Good. Starters, $5.90-$11.90; mains, $13.90-$29.90; dessert, $7-$10.
Choor muang (violet dumplings); Baitong's prawns; pomegranate granita.
BAI TONG THAI
703 Princes Highway,
Tempe, 8668 4800
Tue-Fri, lunch, 11am-3pm;
Tue-Sun, dinner, 5.30-10pm
Licensed; BYO wine only