Imagine a vacation, somewhere in the balmiest corner of Asia. Off a jungle road, you discover a twinkling bungalow — a kitchen with a wide, screened-in porch. Sloping wooden floors, rattan chairs, and wildly colorful Buddhist bric-a-brac fill the inside space. Outside, a leafy garden flanks the screen walls, which are covered in climbing flowers.
Now imagine that this restaurant, in its entirety, has been plopped into a neighborhood of Atlanta.
In a small bungalow, down an overgrown pathway, behind a much more imposing and vastly different Thai restaurant in Virginia-Highland, sits Panita's Thai Kitchen. Since 1998, the restaurant has been doing something very few Atlanta locations, particularly intown, achieve: It channels another place, another feel, another country entirely.
And particularly in the midst of this sweltering Southern summer, eating at Panita channels the experience of dining in a family-run restaurant in the Asian tropics. There's no air conditioning; instead, huge fans are employed to cool down patrons. In the thick, hot air, gulping down spicy, flavor-saturated dishes served in huge pieces of tropical fruit, the only thing to remind you that you are still firmly on American soil is Dave FM blaring loudly in the background.
The restaurant is owned by Panjakarn Thammaset and his wife Cindy, who, until recently, owned her own restaurant called Sawadee on Roswell Road. Now she acts as Panita's entire floor staff, and Panjakarn its entire kitchen staff. The restaurant has no other employees, and is open seven days a week. If the demanding schedule is exhausting to the pair, you'd never know it. Service can be slow when the restaurant fills up, but only as a function of physics — Cindy simply cannot be at more than one table at once. And once she's at yours, she's brisk, helpful and friendly. She knows wine service better than half the city's waiters (although the list is as bare bones as they come). She'll fret and fret that your food is too spicy, but she'll also defend its integrity with gusto. "It's not like anything you'll get anywhere else in town," she declares. And she's right.
The couple arrived in 1995 from Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the difference Cindy's touting is the menu's Northern influence. While curries and noodles abound on the extensive, crazy, illogical and endearing menu (headings such as "General fares, Delicious, Delicious, Superb and Gourmet Cooking" are followed by descriptions such as "tasty, sexy shrimp" or "a mélange of food from sea"), the best dishes are the less ubiquitous choices.
Laab Ped, advertised on the menu as "An original E-Sarn recipe from Northeastern Thailand. Very spicy! No concessions!" presents chunks of duck meat, all crisp outer edges and moist, chewy, musky meat, swathed in a riot of lime, chile and basil. Copious quartered limes are cooked along with the meat, giving the dish a steady backbeat of fruit rather than the simple acidity lime juice alone usually provides.
Chicken, seafood, vegetables, and whole fish appear throughout the menu. The whole fish are fun and spiced as assuredly as all the restaurant's dishes, but could be cooked a bit more delicately. Lamb and pork are also represented. Chillied lamb, which is a Thammasat original according to the menu, has hunks of deliciously gamy meat enveloped in a wickedly dark and spicy sauce. Moo Todd Gra Tiam presents small pieces of salty caramelized pork, showered with fistfuls of cilantro and garlic.
It's the layering of flavors that sets Panita apart. A recent special of zucchini fritters was served in a halved pineapple, and the light, crispy vegetal zucchini hums with an undercurrent of the fruit's flavor, as well as tamarind, garlic and basil. The knobby fishcake appetizer has the fish ground up with curry and spices and then fried almost too hard, for a strange, chewy, salty and spicy snack that becomes oddly addictive the more of it you eat.
You might wait a while to get served. You might, as the table next to me did a few nights back, need to run out and grab bug spray in the midst of your meal. You might sweat through your clothes despite the fans. You might wish, as I did, that they'd turn off the obnoxiously American music. But Panita is not about creature comforts. It's about adventure. How fabulous to be reminded that adventure can be found, without even leaving the neighborhood.