Wichita’s Thai scene is struggling. In the past decade we’ve lost more restaurants (Taste of Thai, Bangkok Thai, Thai Smile) than we’ve gained (Sit @ Thai, Thai Village), and they haven’t done much to break free of their hole-in-the-wall status. It’s a shame because when done right, Thai food can be a sublime balance of all five tastes.
Though it’s not the city’s most popular Thai restaurant, Promise Thai Cuisine’s food has been reliable for more than a decade and provides a glimpse into what makes this cuisine so great.
One of the things that sets Promise Thai apart is the decor; the restaurant deserves credit for eschewing the dank mustiness or cramped spaces of some of the city’s Thai stalwarts. The large windows, blue-and-white color scheme and ornate serving platters makes the restaurant feel a little more upscale. During certain times of the year, those large windows allow the setting sun to serve as an eloquent backdrop for the meal.
It’s easy for Asian restaurants to gravitate towards stocking their menus with the kinds of favorites found in Americanized Chinese restaurants. Promise Thai falls into this trap a little bit, offering crab Rangoon, chow mein and chop suey – but the restaurant largely sticks to the Thai wheelhouse, offering a concentrated number of options across soups, salads, noodles, fried rice, curry and entrees.
The soups and salads feel the most Thai if only because it’s hard to imagine such a sour flavor profile originating from America. The Tom Yum soup is big on lime but tamed with the fish sauce, lemongrass and galangal and that sourness, combined with the aromatic spices, meaty straw mushrooms, and a sliding scale of spiciness, challenges and awaken the palate. More well-rounded is the Tom Kah Gai, similar in flavor but made silky smooth and rich with the addition of coconut milk.
Not prominent in many traditional Thai recipes, peanuts often find their way onto the menu at Promise Thai, and their unique depth of flavor adds an umami-filled complexity to dishes such as the rainbow collection of curries: heavily spiced, sweetened with coconut milk, garnished with some pickled bamboo shoots. The English word “curry” comes from the Tamil word kari meaning “sauce for rice,” but with the amount of flavor in this dish, it’s tempting to skip the rice entirely and just spoon the curry straight into your mouth.
The umami is present in the quintessential pad Thai too, bolstered by fish sauce, sour-forward thanks to an abundance of tamarind paste, and rounded out with palm sugar. Or if you’d prefer a simple stir fry, the praram long song is little more than a sweet satay sauce covering a plate full of cabbage. If legumes aren’t your thing but you’re still feeling a little nutty, the cashew stir fry has almost as many nuts as it does all other ingredients combined.
If there is one complaint to be had, it’s the same one that’s found at many restaurants of similar ilk: the protein, whether beef, pork, shrimp, or tofu, is treated as an afterthought – it’s cut into bite-sized pieces and otherwise left to fend for itself, bland and unremarkable. If you are as ambivalent as I am about your protein choice, the tofu at least has a natural ability to suck up some of the sauce, so I consider it the best way to find some coherence.
Although Promise Thai follows the same beats and plays the same notes as many of the other Thai restaurants in town, the presentation and atmosphere make it feel just a little more special. It’s the kind of place where it’s best to slow down and enjoy the complexity of flavors arriving at the table, in no small part because of the speed of the service. Boa and Sue Pojananond, the husband and wife owners, comprise of two-thirds of the restaurant’s workforce – she’s in the back cooking, and he’s serving tables. All of the tables. During an off-peak time it’s not so bad, but even a couple of parties eating at the same time means that orders are slow to be taken, water glasses go unfilled, and checks take a long time to arrive as he’s running around trying to do everything at once.
If you manage to get a few seconds to bend either Boa or Sue’s ear, you’ll see how much pride they have in the food they’ve been serving for so long. It’s what sets apart Promise Thai and keeps me coming back for more.
Promise Thai Cuisine
Where: 313 S. Greenwich, 316-440-4555
Type of food: Thai
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Promise Thai Cuisine owners are on vacation and the restaurant is closed until Dec. 1, 2017