After years of delayed hopes, Mesa’s small but charming downtown is beginning to see a wave of new development. Co+Hoots, the Phoenix-based coworking space, is on the way, and one proposal envisions a 15-story tower on a site currently used for parking. Close to all the action sits one long-running Downtown Mesa restaurant, Nunthaporn’s Thai Cuisine. Nunthaporn’s, which takes it names from founder Nunthaporn Treekamol, is growing as well with the recent addition of a second dining room to complement the restaurant’s original shoebox-style space.
Nunthaporn’s occupies a storefront in the heart of Mesa’s walkable city center, 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. Ceiling fans and wood carvings create a tropical feel, and the new addition to the dining room is brighter in order to display jewelry for sale. A fenced patio along the Main Street sidewalk provides an option for full-service outdoor dining with a view of the passing trains and street life. Bike racks are found at nearly every corner in Downtown Mesa.
The menu at Nunthaporn’s goes beyond the typical format of matching a selection of curries, stir-frys, and noodle dishes 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 are served in either 16-ounces sizes suitable for one or two or 32-ounces tureens better for a full table to share, 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 four to an order, cut into eight pieces. They’re modest in size, though, so large parties may want to either request multiple orders or combine them with other starters. The satay at Nunthaporn’s is four small skewers of flattened chicken breast, nicely grilled and paired with peanut dipping sauce and a cucumber chutney. 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 entree. Abundant fresh basil leaves add distinctive flavor and aroma beyond usual the soy sauce taste predominant in many fried rice dishes. Black Pepper Shrimp is a straightforward choice that relies on butterflied crustaceans with assorted vegetables. Pad Cha is a fiery stir-fry dish energized by the inclusion of red curry paste in the work. In the Garlic Lover, tofu or meat is tossed with carrots carved in an artistic manner common to Thai cooking and then served in a zesty sauce.
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 massaman — are well prepared at Nunthaporn’s. More impressive however, is the inclusion of jungle curry, a northern Thai 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 a cold beer or a dish of ice cream.
Noodle dishes are represented by strong interpretations of Thai menu standbys. Pad Thai is of course present, but Nunthaporn’s version benefits from 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 and pad lard na, both wide noodle entrees, are made with gai lan, Chinese broccoli, as opposed to its American counterpart. The curried noodle soup benefits from a yellow sauce and pickled cabbage in a hearty bowl of wheat noodles with beef or chicken.
Nunthaporn’s dessert menu is relatively large and involves classics like sweet, sticky rice — available either on its own or in combination with fresh mango when available. The rice can also be combined with coconut gelato or Thai custard, which is itself based on coconut. Beside those choices, there’s friend banana and a seasonal offering of pumpkin custard. A limited liquor license provides for a basic selection of wine and plenty of cold beer, both Thai and domestic, 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 a destination worthy of a location at Mesa’s crossroads. Development in the heart of Mesa is finally catching up to the city’s population of nearly half a million and its embrace of rail transit. Nunthaporn’s own expansion seems perfectly timed to match the increasing urbanity of the city it calls home.
17 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201