Word’s out. There’s a new Thai place in Bridgeport worth traveling for. Ruuthai is a little family-run restaurant making authentic Thai dishes. Even better, Ruuthai offers dishes rarely seen in these parts, like mussel pancakes, boat noodles and steamed red curry fish custard. And then there are the desserts. Thai desserts are decidedly weird to Americans. Pork in a dessert? What?! Yes, and it’s good.
Ruuthai has been open almost five months. It’s in a residential neighborhood off North Avenue. The storefront is cheerfully decorated with orange and lime accents, and pink and purple swirly, girly flower stencils. The effect is simple and charming. They’ve added a few more tables recently (they’re getting busier), and they do a lot of take-out, but I believe in eating food when it’s at its best – moments after Def Ruangsikul, head chef, has prepared it.
If you sit down to eat you will probably meet Chef Ruangsikul’s daughter Dif. Dif McGeough is the manager and waitress. She was born in Thailand and raised in the United States, and she’s a knowledgeable and gently humorous guide.
Over the course of several visits, here’s what we’ve tried:
Mussel pancakes are Thai street food, and at Ruuthai, the pancake was crisp and brown, dotted with mussels, and served over crunchy, sautéed bean sprouts that had a pleasing vinegar flavor. The light chewy texture of the pancakes is created from tapioca batter.
Curry fish custard is steamed in cups created from banana leaves. We loved this dish. It was light-textured, yet had a depth of flavors enriched with coconut milk.
Boat noodles turned out to be soup. It’s called boat noodles, Dif explained, because in Thailand the soup is sold from boats moored on river banks. A big bowl of pork broth is seasoned with a pungent blend of spices. Fresh basil, cilantro, scallions, bean sprouts and meat – beef or pork and sausage – and thin, silky rice noodles are added to the broth. Div asked if I wanted to add condiments to the soup. I love bold Thai flavors, and this was bold enough for me.
Larb, minced chicken (or pork) salad, sparkled with that distinctive Thai hit of spice and freshness. Chopped mint, lemongrass, red onion, with ground chicken and toasted rice powder, were dressed in a light, temperature-raising sweet-and-sour vinaigrette over iceberg lettuce. Crunchy lettuce, partially subdued by the spicy dressing… I have to order larb every time.
We’re also partial to drunken noodles. And Ruuthai’s drunken noodles were the spiciest I’ve ever had. I think they made me sneeze! The wide rice noodles were soft and elastic, enjoyably chewy and smoky-sweet. If you don’t like spice, Pad Thai is your dish. Dif was happy to accommodate my friend’s request for no scallions. The thin rice noodles were pleasingly al-dente, chewy and soft, and dressed in sweet tamarind sauce.
Colorful, soupy curries are served in bowls, all the better to spoon over soft, fragrant jasmine rice. There are several spice-rich curries. Duck curry, a special one day, was a deep saffron hue, with chunks of juicy, sweet pineapple, grape tomatoes, cilantro, hot peppers, and shards of moist duck.
And it’s cheap eats -- Prices range in the $8 to $12 range, and it’s BYOB. At lunch, there’s a special, $9 for soup and entrée. The two soups, Tom Yum Goong, spicy lemongrass with shrimp, mushroom, tomato and cilantro, and Tom Kar Kai, coconut milk soup with chicken, mushroom, galangal, tomato and cilantro, are both zesty and pleasing.
And what about those desserts? Take a look at them in the refrigerator case, but you’re probably going to need Dif to explain them to you, and warm them up. A banana-leaf-wrapped pyramid revealed a tapioca wrapper around minced, salty-sweet pork. As surprised as we were to be eating pork for dessert,we were captivated by the textures and flavors and kept going back for more.
Another banana-leaf packet revealed a blanket of steamed, sweet, sticky rice surrounding caramelized banana. Again, the textures and salty-sweet flavors were intriguing.
A bowl of what looked like loose green gelatin with yellow corn kernels floating in it, was pandan tapioca with sweet-salty coconut milk. Pandan is the key to many Thai desserts, said Div. Pandan is a long, narrow leaf with a mild, aromatic flavor. Dif brought a leaf for us to smell, and the scent is so mild, it was difficult to discern. It seemed to me like very mild sandlewood.
The pandan tapioca had a soft, comforting texture, and the corn kernels added sweet pops of flavor that didn’t seem so weird after all. Eating this dessert felt like sinking into a warm bath. My dining companion that day was one of the most conservative, fussy eaters I know, and she said, “Actually, it’s rather nice.” Taro with coconut milk is more challenging for Americans. But try it -- the taro root-sticky rice balls had a gelatinous and chewy texture, and the slippery coconut sauce had strips of coconut floating in it, adding another texture to the dish.
Ruuthai’s Kitchen is the kind of simple, family-run restaurant I love discovering. The owners are friendly and good spirited, and they seem to genuinely want to share the experience of eating real Thai food. When so many Thai restaurants have lost their soul catering to bland palates, I wish Ruuthai the best in staying true to their mission.
Ruuthai’s Kitchen, 648 Beechwood Ave, Bridgeport.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Information: 475-282-4600 and www.ruuthaiskitchen.com