Angel's Thai Cafe

(Grand Rapids, MI) Fed up with Michelin star restaurants and newly-dubbed venues catering to the upper middle class, we decided to get down and dirty at a little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood place called Westsider Cafe. We bundled ourselves up, braving the extremely cold weather to head deep into the West side of Grand Rapids, enticed by the thought of a plate full of Polish and Cuban inspired foods. Parking out front, we were amazed there weren't more cars around. The cafe was brightly lit, clean and full of people. Then we noticed the birthday cake in the shape of a mouse and a table full of presents. It took a couple minutes before someone ventured up to the counter to let us know the restaurant was closed to the public for a birthday party. What!?! A bit shame-faced that we'd wandered into someone's private party without being warned with signs or anything, we got back into the car and started driving. We finally settled on a backup plan, an authentic Thai restaurant, newly opened in late 2009. If there's one thing downtown Grand Rapids needs, it's good Thai food. Still shell-shocked from our encounter at Westsider, we parked at the convenient lot on Monroe Center across from Rosa Parks Circle, where ice skaters were madly whirling like winter dervishes, and entered the inconspicuous strip mall dining establishment called Angel's Thai Cafe...

He Fed:
The first thing you notice when you walk into Angel's Thai Cafe is how small and narrow it is. There are about 5 booths and 7 tables, all jammed into a standard strip mall space. Despite that, the place does not feel cramped. It is well-lit and the cool blue color scheme plus front windows help it seem more comfortable. We grab a booth toward the back after being told to seat ourselves anywhere we like. There are perhaps 4 other tables/booths occupied.

Crispy Tofu
We peruse the menu while water arrives. It is extensive, with signature dishes on the back. My heart leaps with joy because it is all Thai food; none of the double-duty you see from other restaurants who try to incorporate Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai, then do all of which rather poorly. Nope, this is just Thai, focused and specialized. I order a pot of Jasmine Green tea and coconut water then we put in for a couple apps before the entree.

Our first appetizer arrives: crispy tofu. Little triangles of lightly breaded tofu with a side of sweet-and-sour sauce. The exterior is crunchy, leathery, and minor discoloration on the edges makes us think it may have been frozen. No matter; once dissected and daubed into sauce, this minor toughness dissolves into spongy goodness.

The second app, crispy rolls, comes with a bowl of sauce that looks like sweet-and-sour but has a bite, both vinegar and spice. The rolls are tight bundles filled with minced chicken, veggies and cellophane noodles. Snapped open, dipped into sauce, they become a savory explosion of Asian cuisine. Reluctantly, I let Juliet have the last one.

For my entree, I order my new favorite Thai dish: Gang Massaman. A quick check of Wikipedia suggests a different spelling but the elements are the same, including potatoes, coconut milk, peanuts, meat (of your choice), onions and curry paste. I discovered Massaman in Utah during a business trip, after a friend recommended it. I've been in love ever since, though it's difficult to find the same level of quality here in Grand Rapids. A certain other over-rated restaurant up the road delivered a sub-standard version to our house and other places have simply botched it.

Chicken Gang Massaman
Without a doubt, this was the finest Massaman I've had since Utah. A heaping plate of steaming chicken seasoned with red pepper flakes, swimming atop the traditional pile of potato curry. I dig in, scooping half the dish onto white rice. Ordinarily I order beef, but this time I tried chicken. Also, Angel's allows you to select the level of spice. I went for medium, having learned my lesson on a previous visit that medium-hot was a bit much, and was very happy. The sweetness of the peanut and coconut milk mediates the heat of the hot curry and red pepper flakes. Although some diners might blanch at the thought of filling out a recipe with potatoes, they soak up the hot-sweet sauce and become addictive distractions from the still-crunchy onions and lean chicken breast.

At the end of the night, we are stuffed. Food remains on our plates and even though there's no room in our bellies, our hands continue to ladle just one more bite into our mouths. We have a new favorite restaurant in Grand Rapids.
She Fed:
We were disappointed we couldn't try The Westsider, but it was Saturday night and downtown Grand Rapids beckoned. When Jeremy suggested Angel's Thai Cafe, I agreed readily, hoping my quest for a local outstanding pad Thai would come to a happy close.

The inside of Angel's looks like a typical strip mall restaurant: cheap tables and booths, some inexpensive Asian-inspired artwork, silverware pre-wrapped in paper napkins with that little paper tab holding it all in place, and big plastic glasses for ice water. Like any other Thai restaurant you've ever been too...uninspired. Since I've become obsessed with Thai food during the past year, I have learned that a ho-hum decor is usually completely unrelated to the quality of food.

There were about 10 other people dining when we walked in and we were quickly told we could sit anywhere we wanted. The only remaining tables for two were near the door, so we picked a large booth at the back of the restaurant.

The menu was quite large and it took me more than a few minutes to decide what I wanted. (Did I really think I wouldn't order the pad Thai?) While I made up my mind, we ordered a few appetizers. Our waitress brought us ice waters, hot jasmine tea and a pitcher filled with water for refills.

Crispy Rolls
Our first appetizer came out quickly. It was tofu dusted in a white coating and deep-fried until nearly golden. It looked and tasted fairly bland even with the accompanying housemade sweet-and-sour style sauce. On the other hand, the second app—chicken and veggie rolls—were outstanding. Cellophane noodles, shredded chicken and carrots were wrapped in rice paper and flash fried. They were crispy, flavorful, slightly spicy and further enhanced with the rich, sweet and spicy red sauce on the side. Our first bite was burning hot from the fryer when they came out, but they were so delicious we couldn't wait for them to cool down before finishing them off. I wouldn't order the tofu again, but I could have eaten a second order of those rolls.

The entrees arrived as we were finishing the appetizers. Of course, I ordered pad Thai with shrimp and immediately fell in love. Thick rice noodles were coated in a sweet and spicy sauce, topped with crushed peanuts and crispy bean sprouts. There were one-inch chunks of cooked green onions, bits of tender scrambled egg and eight nice-sized shrimp within the nest of noodle-y goodness. I quickly found myself in pad Thai nirvana.

The portions were plentiful; Jeremy and I could have easily split an entree. The service was prompt and friendly. The only odd thing was when Jeremy had finished his massaman and I was taking one last bite of mine. The waitress asked "Are you still working on yours?" as I was just putting a forkful of the pad Thai in my mouth. Silly question.

Shrimp Pad Thai
We had a fantastic and deeply satisfying meal for under $40. Angel's has no liquor license, so if you want a glass of wine or a beer with your meal, you are out of luck. I will easily trade a glass of wine for those chicken veggie rolls anytime.

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