The third location of Malai Kitchen is in the far reaches of The Shops at Clearfork, abutting major construction at the southwest Fort Worth retail development that will one day house a Pinstripes bowling and bocce center and an AMC Theatres.
Until those venues open — as well as others, including a City Works Eatery & Pour House opening across the narrow thoroughfare known as Monahans Avenue — this Thai-Vietnamese restaurant from husband-and-wife team Braden and Yasmin Wages will have to suffice in terms of thrills and excitement.
A recent lunch — the restaurant has been open since early October — found Malai’s kitchen rolling a number of strikes, even if the service, at times, had all of the refinement of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The vibe: Maybe it was the Portishead music playing in the background, but our meal had an air of relaxation that few Monday lunches can muster. The brightly lit dining room, decorated with attractive pendant lights and photos taken by the Wages during their extensive travels — is surprisingly small, with nine booths, seven more tables and bar seating conjuring many a wait time at dinner and weekend brunch. We slipped right in at 12:30 p.m., but the restaurant was nearing capacity.
As businesspeople hunched over the lunch special of the day — a slippery, chopsticks-averse flat noodle dish — ladies who lunched no doubt embraced some of the menu’s lighter offerings, all against a blip of an open kitchen where activity was at its peak.
The food: A complimentary banana-leaf-covered mound of sticky rice, served alongside a small cup of pureed eggplant, started the festivities: “Our version of bread and butter,” said our server. Unwrapping the leaf, we used our hands to break off a serving of rice, then dipped it in the earthy, smoky sauce.
The spring rolls with tuna ($9), six pieces of rice-paper cylinders filled with pickled sprouts, vermicelli noodles, cucumber and lettuce, contained a seldom-seen ingredient: raw tuna. The vibrant fish added another layer of fresh to the starter, which was amplified by a stellar peanut and fish sauce combo.
Malai has its own Sriracha, too, which is made from scratch daily, says its website. Thai chilis take it in a slightly different direction than the Huy Fong version, and I thought it tasted less bracing and a little sweeter than the ubiquitous condiment.
The avocado shrimp salad ($12) was a revelation. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were looking at a standard Caesar, with its dusting of grated cheese cresting above. But, no — that would be shaved coconut, which rounded out the salad’s more straightforward notes with a touch of sweetness. Mixed greens, spicy croutons and sauteed shrimp were bathed in a coconut herb dressing, but the avocados were incorporated, too, so it became thicker and more substantial.
The seared jumbo sea scallops ($21) were expertly cooked with a crust that wonderfully contrasted with the medium-raw, pillowy interior. Three of them were spread across a tangle of pad thai noodles, and threads of scrambled eggs and tofu. Crushed peanuts and a spicy tamarind sauce tied it all together. I’m not usually a fan of pad thai but this version, with its interesting contrasting textures, I could eat any day.
The menu features a “Daily Dish” Monday through Friday. The charred flat noodles ($9) with chicken and broccoli was noted for its “spicy glaze,” which hardly registered while we were ordering it. We were asked how we wanted each dish spiced — mild, medium or hot — so we thought nothing about saying “medium,” which almost takes the entree into crazy-spicy territory, and this is before you add any Sriracha.
I wished for more broccoli, fewer pieces of the cubed, dry chicken, and for the noodles to have a less aggressively burnt taste, but maybe that was the glaze.
The service: At any new restaurant, service kinks can also be found on the menu. Our lunch featured a rotating crew who variously delivered, checked on and boxed our food. Our main server was thrillingly new to the occupation. Let’s leave it at that.
Malai Kitchen Fort Worth
5289 Monahans Ave.