The cuisine of Northern China is the star at Jiu Thai Asian Cafe, but hold the Thai.
Despite its name and the presence of a couple of Thai dishes on the menu, don't mistake Jiu Thai for a Thai restaurant. Instead, Jiu Thai is distinctly Chinese. It draws from the cuisines of the Shaanxi, Xianjiang and Sichuan provinces of China, with an emphasis on highly spiced noodle dishes.
Located in a strip mall on Bethel Road, Jiu Thai is modest in size, cafeteria-like in its furnishings and plainly decorated. But its owners and chef, who are from Northern China, have big ambitions when it comes to the food. And so the menu ranges across China and dips down to Thailand.
Unfortunately, the pad thai served here (with chicken, beef or shrimp, $9–$10) is no better than the average version found in dozens of places around town. It lacks sufficient chilies, ginger, fish sauce and lime to elevate it into something special. Other non-Chinese items include kimchi ($3) and seaweed salad ($5), which both taste like they're straight off the grocery shelf.
Likewise, steer clear of the menu's American-Chinese dishes like chicken fried rice ($8)—also done with vegetables, pork, beef or shrimp. On two samplings, these standards didn't surprise or delight.
So, why eat here? Apparently, many have already figured out the answer to that question, because Jiu Thai is usually busy at dinner and lunch. It's because of the tasty and unusual offerings from the Shaanxi province in Northern China, as well as the dishes from Xianjiang province to the northwest and the credible Sichuan, too. Lamb often makes an appearance, and noodles are the preferred carbohydrate instead of rice.
Start your meal with Xi'an Steamed Cold Noodle or liangpi ($8), a big plate of soft, wide noodles fragrant with garlic, vinegar and chilies. Crisp bean sprouts and slivers of red bell pepper add crunch to this robust plate of food named after Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province and an ancient Silk Road terminus. Even stronger flavors are found in the cold dish called Red Oil Beef ($6.75). The recipe may be Sichuan (two servers said so, but another one said it was Xi'anese). Thin slices of somewhat chewy beef are coated with ample amounts of red chili oil mixed with garlic and topped with herbs. I detected none of the strangely wonderful essence of Sichuan peppercorn, which is why I suspect the dish is Xi'an in origin. Roots aside, it's a terrific appetizer, not fiery hot, but deeply meaty and plenty zingy. The dried bean curd salad ($5) is hardly a salad, but instead, another wonderful recipe in which strips of bean curd skin and green peppers are mixed with that pungent red chili oil and more garlic. These two oily, spicy dishes pair very well with a plate of the sweet and vinegary cucumber salad, the chunks of cucumber spiked with cilantro ($5).
The menu can be a little confusing, with appetizers called “cold dish” or “specials.” “Entrées” seem to just be those things served with rice, some of which are standard American-Chinese items and some of which are from identifiable parts of China, like Mapo Tofu ($8) from Sichuan Province. That the owners are not from Sichuan is again evident in this dish's preparation, which lacks the true power of the dish at its best—more chilies and garlic are needed, along with sesame oil and ginger. Tiger Tofu ($9) is slightly better, a simpler dish with onions and peppers in a rich, salty and sweet sauce, but it was a touch too sweet.
Head instead for one of the Red Oil Hand Stretch Noodle dishes, hearty bowls of deliciousness ($10). These are not the famous pulled noodles that magically explode into a zillion threads in the hands of a noodle master (search YouTube if you haven't seen it). These are more rustic, a half-inch in width and slightly thicker than, say, fettucine. They are combined in a bowl with rich meat stock, herbs, dried chili pods and plenty of that sensibly spicy red oil. Both beef and lamb are wonderful, though I preferred the lamb.
Lamb is also the star of the delightfully unctuous lamb and onion dumplings, a dozen little steamed packets paired nicely with a soy and black vinegar dipping sauce ($8). Also worth tasting are the dumplings with shredded pork and lightly pickled cabbage, the cabbage still a bit crunchy despite steaming inside the noodle wrappers ($8). Shredded pork with cumin and hot pepper is the star of Delicious Pork Cake ($3), which is not a cake but a Chinese hamburger or roujiamo. A thick, steamed bun is split down the middle, filled with shredded cabbage and meat, then crisped on both sides on a griddle. It's marvelous street food, even better sitting down with a cold Tsingtao beer.
Less successful are Jiu Thai's Charcoal BBQ starters, with offerings of shrimp, chicken, beef,squid, tofu and chicken hearts, seasoned and cooked over a hot fire on wooden skewers ($1-$2 per skewer). These street food items are just so-so—the seasoning (typically cumin and chili) was the same mixture on both meats and seafoods and tasted (honestly) rather like Lawry's Seasoned Salt.Everything I sampled was somewhat dried out by too much time on the fire.
Jiu Thai has only a beer license, but beer is preferred with most of this food anyway. Prices are remarkably low—a hungry family of four could fill up here for less than $60, with a couple of beers included. Service also is incredibly fast—most dishes come out quicker than fast food Chinese. And while the servers might not know the origins of each dish, they were helpful and as cheerful and pleasant a crew as any I've found.
If I had one wish, it would be that restaurants like Jiu Thai would have the courage to go all-in on the authentic dishes of their homelands, instead of surrounding the good stuff with a menu filled with average Asian fare found in so many other Chinese restaurants. The food here, when true to its Northern Chinese roots, is what makes Jiu Thai special. It would be great to have more of it.