The Coconut Midtown
Almost like a dare to the schoolyard bully, a new Thai restaurant has opened up across the street from Thai Basil in Midtown. It’s a rather audacious move. Some might even argue that it’s a stupid one. After all, who can challenge Thai Basil?
If the number of packed weeknights are any indication, then apparently The Coconut Midtown can. Hell, on one recent Tuesday we found ourselves lucky to grab a table.
The Coconut is a small, cramped venue with a staff that’s attentive, knowledgeable and eager to ensure visitors enjoy themselves.
The food travels a path between standard and inventive.
Cream-cheese wontons aren’t the epitome of culinary Southeast Asian traditions, but damn it if they aren’t delightful. Soft cream cheese and chives in a crispy wrapper and served with a sweet chili sauce? There is nothing wrong with that, and The Coconut recognizes this.
The fresh spring roll is at least fresh in ingredients, if not in creativity. Mere cigarettes of lettuce and tofu—nothing like the overstuffed spring rolls you usually greet with applause—are simply a means to getting the sugary peanut sauce into your mouth. Fine enough, but if you have beer or white wine in front of you, stick to the wontons.
The chicken larb—a spicy minced-meat salad—is fragrant and intense. Mint, chilies, basil and iceberg lettuce are drenched in a spicy lime dressing punctuated with a heavy hand of fish sauce.
The red curry is like a beginning clarinetist—loud, and it only knows one note. Still, if you’re cold and red curry is your thing, you’ll be pleased enough. The yellow curry, punctuated by cardamom and cinnamon, prances around chunks of potato.
The spicy Thai burger is a gimmick to be sure. It arrived well-done (not that they asked how we wanted it) and about three sizes too small for its Wonder Bread-esque bun. The spicy sauce is sharp, and by any normal standards, I would declare this a failure.
Yet we all went back for another bite because the beef’s floral, lemongrass-accentuated seasoning is immaculate. A bit of tinkering and The Coconut will have a destination menu item worth a trip out from Davis or Roseville.
Drunken noodles are a bit of a misnomer, as traditionally there is no actual alcohol in the recipe. Instead, the dish relies on chilies, black pepper, and a generous helping of basil and garlic to bring it together. The resulting sauce is punchy and sticks to the wide, fat rice noodles with ease. Perhaps the name comes because this is the perfect food to eat when you drink. Regardless, The Coconut has pulled it off perfectly.
The eggplant dish, appropriately—albeit bluntly—called “Eggplant” on the menu, takes advantage of eggplant’s natural sweetness when cooked. It is served with a meat of choice and numerous vegetables in a small mountain flooded in a syrupy garlic-chili sauce.
The Coconut has warnings in its menu about which dishes are spicy, but unless you’re a newborn kitten, trembling and mewling, you might not even be aware of the chilies in your food. If you want even a matchstick of heat, you’ll need be upfront about it with the waitstaff, and tell ’em to lay it on heavy.
The Coconut has made a place for itself in Midtown. Whereas Thai Basil is a practice in subtlety and expertly crafted seasonal specials, The Coconut is brash and unapologetic with flavor profiles. However, I would venture the kitchen is still fine-tuning its dishes. Plus, it delivers in Midtown. That alone should cement it in the hearts of hungry eaters.