Rak Thai

(Grand Rapids, MI) — In all our travels, we’ve lamented that Grand Rapids lacked one big city feature: a combined space market like NYC’s Grand Central Terminal or Chicago’s French Market. Now, with the addition of the Downtown Market, there’s a place for foodies to shop and nibble on the way. Rak Thai is one vendor who brings the vibe of Asian street food to the pristine walkways...

He Fed:

I love Thai food. After all, I gravitate to spicy dishes and preparations which extend beyond the norm. Thai cuisine embodies those characteristics, using nuts, spice, and fresh herbs to tantalize the palate. And, as luck would have it, here we are in the Downtown Market with just a little room after our adventure at Aperitivo, now standing in front of the open air kitchen of Rak Thai.

We take a moment to look at the menu. Our choices are thin, compared to their full menu at other locations, but that’s appropriate; it’s cash and carry here with limited seating upstairs and in the as-yet unoccupied restaurant space on the ground floor. With no table service, you’re better off grabbing something you can munch on while walking around. And, to my eyes, there is only one pick—Mini-Mi’s.

For only $7, you get more than enough food. Two large steamed buns contain thick chunks of grilled lemongrass pork belly, a smear of housemade pate, pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, jalapenos, and sriracha mayo. Although I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of the Banh Mi, I’ve had more than a few. The same for steamed pork buns. This rendition is a cousin to both of those sandwiches.

My first bite, I’m not terribly impressed. The temperature is a bit cooler than I expect, and the pork is a tad overdone. My estimation of Rak begins to drop. But, then, something miraculous happens...all of the ingredients in my mouth begin to play upon one another. I had a similar experience at Golden 28 with their pho; given time and patience, the subtle give-and-take of spice levels and sweetness combine to create a sum more than the parts. By the time I’ve polished off the Mini-Mi, I’m pretty happy with the experience. Sure, it’s no zazu steamed bun prepared by Duskie Estes (one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten) and it’s no Surdyk’s Flights banh mi from the MSP airport (also one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever crushed), but it’s deeply satisfying.

She Fed:

Jeremy and I are in want of a little nosh as we stroll the Downtown Market, stocking up on goodies. When we spy the sign for Rak Thai, we know we’ve found the place. A quick read of the menu and the Mini Mi’s seem perfect: two miniature banh mi’s for us to share. I’m a sucker for a good banh mi and even better, Rak Thai’s version boasts steamed buns. I had my first pork filled steamed bun at zazu in Santa Rosa a few years ago. The combination of fatty barbeque pork in a sweet steamed bun was incredible and crazy addictive. So the idea of a steamed bun banh mi sounds like heaven to me.

It’s a short wait and when they’re presented, we doctor one with extra sriracha sauce and leave the other as is. They’re plenty big for being termed “mini”. We grab a table and dig in; I take the unadulterated mi, leaving the spicy one for Jeremy. Surprisingly, the steamed buns are cold. I was expecting them to be at least slightly warm and I’m a bit put off at first. But when I bite in, I find the texture and flavor are pretty much the same as the warm, freshly steamed buns I’ve had before. Sweet, yeasty, and toothsome. Honestly, I’d eat steamed buns plain, they’re so good.

But these are stuffed with flavorful goodies—lemongrass grilled pork, housemade pate, pickled carrots, daikon, cucumbers, jalapenos, cilantro, and sriracha mayo. The veggies are all fresh and crispy, layering on fabulous flavors. Sweet carrot, peppery daikon, spicy jalapenos, the distinctive cilantro, and I swear I’m getting a verdant minty taste somewhere. The grilled pork is tasty with the lemongrass, but it’s also incredibly dry and tough. Even the schmear of rich pate on the bun can’t save the shriveled up pork shards. I tell Jeremy I’d pay $20 for some Kewpie and sriracha this very minute, only later realizing it was supposed to have spicy mayo on it.

This doesn’t mean I won’t go back to Rak Thai. I’ll just be sure to ask for an extra side of the sriracha mayo!

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