With apologies to John Lennon: Imagine there are no puns / It’s easy if you try / Just the owner’s name / Without wordplay on “Thai” / Imagine all the people eating there today. If you can get past the mangled song lyrics, envision a Thai restaurant that simply bears the name of its proprietor without reliance on the witticisms that have become all too popular, both for Thai restaurants themselves and the dishes they serve. Nunthaporn’s in Downtown Mesa is just that type of place: a Thai restaurant where the food trumps attempts at humor.
The restaurant’s founder, Nunthaporn Treekamol, used to help run Benjarong, another Thai restaurant located in a Mesa strip mall. Her own restaurant is in a considerably more attractive location in the heart of Mesa’s walkable Downtown, just half a block from the Center / Main light rail station. The space is comfortable, with decor a step up from travel posters, but still casual in feel. The restaurant is somewhat narrow with the tables nearest Main enjoying the most natural light. Ceiling fans and wood carvings create a tropical feel.
The menu at Nunthaporn’s goes beyond matching half a dozen curries, stir-frys, and noodle dishes each with a protein of choice. There’s plenty of that modular approach here, but there are also house specialties and regional flourishes that make the restaurant a place where it’s hard to ever eat one’s way through the entire menu, even though doing so could be great fun. The restaurant is serious about spice levels. Thai hot could be a life-changing (or ending) experience, but even mild can yield a slight burn, especially with the curries.
Soups, served in either 16-ounces sizes suitable for one or two or 32-ounces tureens better for a full table to share, are an appealing way to start. Tom yum is a clear broth full of flavor infused by stalks of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and slices of galangal, a rhizome similar to ginger. Don’t eat these ingredients; they’re extremely fibrous. Instead enjoy the protein (customer’s choice) and mushrooms that soak up the taste of the fragrant liquid. Som tum, the salad of shredded green papaya, is also well executed here with abundant chilies and peanuts, along with shrimp for an added cost.
Familiar, crowd-pleasing appetizers include crunchy, peppery spring rolls, which come six to an order. They’re small, though, so large parties may want to either request multiple orders or combine them with other starters. The sate at Nunthaporn’s is four skewers of flattened chicken breast, nicely grilled and paired with peanut dipping sauce. Curry puffs combine ground chicken with sweet potato inside tiny pastries. The result is a successful southeast Asian interpretation of an empanada.
Basil fried rice is a refreshing twist on a familiar, often-Americanized dish. Abundant fresh basil leaves add distinctive flavor and aroma beyond usual the soy sauce taste predominant in fried rice dishes. Black pepper shrimp is a simple dish that relies on butterflied crustaceans with a basic assortment of vegetables. “Garlic lover” is a wok dish in which tofu or meat is tossed with carrots carved in the artistic manner common to Thai cooking and then served in a zesty sauce that allows the “stinking rose” to blossom as fully as possible.
Both red and green curries are aromatic and complex dishes, each powered by a vibrant mix of spices, herbs, and chilies. In fact, all the other standard varieties of curry — yellow, penang, and masaman — are well prepared at Nunthaporn’s. More impressive however, is the inclusion of jungle curry, a northern dish not as common on American menus. It’s based on a thin, fiery sauce that soaks the vegetables, including generous pieces of eggplant, and the chosen protein in a lively taste that demands to be followed by cold beer or ice cream.
Noodle dishes are represented by strong interpretations of comfortable dishes. Pad Thai is of course present, but Nunthaporn’s version benefits from bits of Chinese chives, radishes, and tamarind, a trio of lively flavors that don’t always make the cut in more watered-down renditions of this dish. Pad see ew is made with gai lan, Chinese broccoli, as opposed to its American counterpart. The curried noodle soup benefits from a yellow sauce and pickled cabbage dressing a hearty bowl of wheat noodles with beef or chicken.
Nunthaporn’s doesn’t try needlessly hard in the dessert department. Sweet, sticky rice is available either on its own or in combination with fresh mango when available or custard. Beside those choices, there’s coconut gelato. Anyone with a desire for more choices might try the ice cream counter next door at Sweet Cakes. A limited liquor license provides for wine and plenty of cold Thai beer to extinguish the heat of the food, but don’t expect clever cocktails or exotic beverages.
Since it’s the only Thai restaurant in Downtown Mesa, with the nearest competitors several miles away, Nunthaporn’s could get by with a fairly generic Thai restaurant approach, including a clever name and less authentic cuisine. Instead, the restaurant makes itself worthy of a special trip. If we really want to “Imagine,” as John Lennon suggested, maybe it can be about excellent Thai food, available on in the decidedly real Main Street with the added bonus of being accessible via light rail.
17 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201
Center / Main Station