Walking in the front door on our first visit to Sukho Thai was, to quote Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again.
Although the orientation and layout of the room are slightly different, there's no mistaking the kinship to Manee Thai, which is also owned by Ann Bognar, a Thai native, and her brother Dan Rifenberg. Manee Thai opened a couple of years ago, also in a suburban strip mall -- on Manchester Road in West County, as opposed to Sukho Thai's location in near-southwest St. Louis County. And virtually every element in the newer place, from the sleek-but-not-stuffy décor right down to the type style used on the menu, echoes the older sibling.
Most important, the resemblance extends to the food. Just as Manee Thai quickly built a devoted following with its exotic flavors (for the neighborhood, at least), pleasant atmosphere and deft use of fresh ingredients, everything we sampled at Sukho Thai passed the same tests.
When you first come through the foyer of Sukho Thai, be sure to take note of the photograph of the King meeting the king (it is left to the viewer to decide which is which). The subtle humor here, intentional or not, is that owner Bognar was born in Thailand but came to St. Louis by way of Memphis.
The dining room is tastefully dotted with elaborate Thai artwork -- a gilt-sculpture-framed mirror here, a detailed painting there -- but without the accessorizing, it very well could be a standard, moderately upscale Continental restaurant. On one visit, our server was Asian, on the other Caucasian, but each had a detailed knowledge of the varying items on the menu, which comprises about a dozen "house specialties" (the most expensive, running from $9-$13); six noodle, six curry and six generic entrée dishes; and a handful of soup and salad offerings that, as is common at Thai restaurants, can each function as a full meal. Several daily specials are also featured on a fluorescent marker board near the entrance to the dining room.
From among the curries, we selected a "country" style, a brothy sauce under a colorful array of vegetables and herbs -- greens from beans, bell pepper and basil; red from bell pepper; yellows and beiges from baby corn and bamboo sprouts. The two variables are the desired meat (or tofu) principal ingredient and the level of spiciness. We chose chicken -- about a 4-ounce portion, just enough to fill out the dish -- and "medium," with the resulting fire just enough to tickle the sinuses but not so much as to dominate the dish.
Our noodle selection was pad cee eew, a wide rice noodle that provides an excellent base for slices of beef (again, the meat is the diner's choice) in a dark, gently sweet and salty soy-based sauce with fresh crinkle-cut carrots and broccoli.
Our samplings from among the house specialties included shoo shee shrimp and roasted-duck curry. The former featured about a dozen medium shrimp, shelled to the tail and served in a combination of mildly spiced red curry and coconut cream, subtly sweet and exotic, with an added herbaceous flavor and floral aromatics from a sprig of fresh cilantro and shredded kaffir leaves. The duck, too, leaned toward the sweet side in the sauce because of the primary flavoring from chunks of pineapple, which added their own acidity, a quality also imparted by tomatoes in the sauce. The duck was quite moist when served and sliced medium-thin. Each house-specialty entrée was served with a large portion of freshly steamed cauliflower, broccoli and carrots on the side.
Thai appetizers are, I think, among the best for forgoing entrées entirely and constructing your own "grazing" meal, and the ones at Sukho Thai fit in with this pattern. The Thai fresh spring roll is almost a meal in itself, similar to a sliced soft-tortilla burrito in appearance but filled with fresh scallions, cucumber cubes and bean sprouts, along with an almost bacony preparation of tofu to complement bits of egg, all served with a mustard-and-honey dipping sauce. Tofu is also available alone as a separate appetizer, eight three-dimensional fried triangles served with a tangy dip of ground peanuts in a vinegar-based sauce. The Thai dumplings are an order of five with a stuffing of ground shrimp, chicken, water chestnut and mushroom peeking out from the top, served with a soy-sauce-based liquid dip.
The risk-averse should probably stick with the coconut ice cream for dessert, but those with a sense of adventure will be amply rewarded by such unusual treats as fresh banana slices served in warm, mildly sweet coconut milk; purple rice pudding, featuring sweetened, spiced, sticky dark rice with little pools of slightly salty coconut milk; and strips of custard served over sticky rice.
Bognar was anchoring the hostess station both nights we visited, apparently spending more time at Sukho than at Manee in order to see that the new restaurant gets off the ground successfully. On both visits, service was prompt and attentive, although there were only a few servers and the place was only moderately full. Having successfully accommodated the steady growth in demand that makes a weekend table at Manee Thai a valued commodity in West County, Bognar is a good bet to repeat the trick further south at Sukho Thai, where she's got a similar brand-new audience to introduce to her style of Thai hospitality.