Well before the sushi craze, Atlantans were mad for Thai food. But our interest seemed to wane as Buford Highway grew to include an abundance of options from other countries. Sickly sweet options and a handful of fancier Thai eateries stuck around, but places serving authentically prepared dishes were harder to find. In recent years, however, Thai food has been slowly creeping back into our bellies, and restaurateurs are focusing on more authentic preparations. KoKai Thai Bistro (5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross, 770-409-9219, www.kokaithaibistro.com) is one such restaurant that specializes in bringing “the streets of Bangkok to you.”
I’ve never been to Bangkok, but the place feels more Los Angeles (arguably the best "Thai town" in the States) than Thailand. Powder-coated white pendant lamps drop down from between neon orange metal rafters that hover over glazed wood tables. There’s a touch of whimsy in the cheerful abstract pictures of eggs and chickens, and the faux streetcart — umbrella included — attached to the prep counter that leads into the kitchen.
Large photographs of the dishes with descriptions fill up each glossy page of the menu. Bypass the satay and nua nam tok (flank steak salad) for the larb kai, a salad of ground chicken, red onions, mild chilis and green onions. The salad has just the right amount of tang from fresh lime juice and that underlying pungency Thai food is known for. Nua toob — marinated and deep-fried beef “jerky” with a smoky red sauce — is still juicy.
The “rice plates” are decent, but the fried rice, noodles and curries deliver the most flavor. A mound of basil fried rice, served with your choice of meat, gets a hint of spice from the basil and chili paste. Waxy green beans are always crunchy, never soggy. Pad Thai might be the most ubiquitous dish in American Thai restaurants, but it's a bona fide litmus test of a cook’s skill and intent. KoKai’s version is mercifully far from cloying and each noodle is coated in a fine dusting of chili powder. The noodles could benefit from a bit more sauce, but the proteins — the shrimp in particular — are cooked with respect.
Thai Boat Noodle Soup is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. The broth, thickened with beef blood, is slightly funky like a Vietnamese pho. Each bowl is filled with tender slices of beef, beef meatballs, bean sprouts and flat white noodles. A few slabs of pork skin finishes the dish. Curries are hit and miss (some are too thin), but there are a couple of consistent options. KoKai beef curry delivers a complex “special curry sauce” loaded with chili flakes and tender, large pieces of beef. Panang curry gets its consistency from a mixture of coconut milk and curry paste brightened with kaffir lime leaves and basil. The slices of bell peppers add a touch of sweetness that's best when paired with chicken.
As good as the food can be, KoKai suffers from a problem that's not unique to this kitchen. Getting the staff to prepare the food “Thai hot” is a task. Please — and this goes out to all restaurants — let the customer suffer if that's the customer’s desire. Luckily, KoKai’s condiment caddy is a quick fix if you find yourself in a heat-lacking predicament. It holds a serious range of ways to spice up your dish — the tiny pickled green chilis are nuclear. Bitten off more than you can handle? Grab a chilly Thai iced tea sweetened with condensed milk; it’ll kill that burn in an instant.