Summer with Thai by Night
A bit of Bangkok in the Finger Lakes
Summer in upstate New York—short but surely the sweetest of seasons! Canandaigua is blessed with my version of the summer holy trinity—sun, sand, and spring rolls. Yes, spring rolls. In the middle of Canandaigua’s main stretch is a gem known as Thai by Night. When it first opened in 2017, I recall reading about how customers kept ordering pad thai, and the owners decided to … remove it from the menu. To most, this may seem unwise from a business perspective, but I was immediately smitten. I understood why. I understood that it was almost painful to watch an entire menu the kitchen put their heart into creating be passed over for the one popular dish everyone knows. Pad thai is the quarterback/cheerleader in every high school rom com. Yes, it is the first Thai dish everyone notices and celebrates, but how about the equally (if not more so) interesting nerd with the heart of gold? (P.S. I was in the computer science program at RIT, and it is simply coincidence that I am always on the nerd’s side in every movie … definitely.)
Thai by Night is one of the first local Asian restaurants to adopt the farm-to-table approach, sourcing meats and vegetables from nearby farms whenever possible. As “hip” as that may sound, it is also authentic to the spirit of Thai cuisine’s focus on local ingredients. The menu often changes (weekly on average), so one always has the opportunity to try new dishes. (While some of the dishes I describe may not be available on your visit, the staff will gladly guide you to something else you will enjoy.)
Let’s start with the other quarterback/cheerleader of most Asian cuisines—the crispy spring roll. I have yet to meet anyone who does not enjoy a fried, cigar shaped pastry filled with delicious things. As someone who has made many hideous spring rolls in her life, I consider Thai by Night’s to be textbook perfect. It is tightly rolled, perfectly cylindrical, and fried expertly. The wrapper is so thin that it shatters when bitten into. The vegetables retain some crunch but are still cooked a bit. The accompanying sweet chili sauce supplies a gentle touch of sweet heat to each bite of the spring roll. This is a must-order, and it seems to be always on the menu.
Let’s be real—lettuce is so pre-Covid. Thai green papaya salad may sound unusual, but it is just a much more flavorful friend of coleslaw. Shredded green papaya has a neutral flavor but a satisfying crunch. The dressing is bright and savory thanks to the lime and garlic dressing. Add some crushed peanuts, green beans, and summer’s candy (tomatoes). These are mostly very common ingredients, but together they become something far tastier than the parts. This is a great dish to order (along with the spring rolls) for a light summer lunch or as a refreshing companion to the entrees.
Gai yang—it literally translates to barbecued chicken. I know. Barbecue in a Thai restaurant? Bear with me. Gai yang is chicken that’s been marinated in Thai herbs like lemongrass and then grilled. It is served with sticky rice and a spicy and sour dipping sauce. (A quick side note on dipping sauces—they are an integral part of Thai cuisine. Many dipping sauces have similar ingredients but are used in different proportions to provide the right note for the dish they accompany.) I loved alternating each bite of the smoky tender chicken with the spicy, sour, and scallion-y sauce with small balls of the sticky rice. If you skip the complex sauce, this can be a terrific introductory dish to Thai cuisine.
Thai cuisine has some influence from other countries—khao mok gai is a great example. It is the Thai take on biryani—born out of Persian Muslims settling in Thailand in the eighteenth century. This is not a dish commonly seen in Thai restaurants here because it is effort-intensive. Traditionally created by sautéing spices with rice, marinating chicken, and then steaming everything together, it is a labor of love. The accompanying dipping sauce is herbaceous and tart to cut through the rich tones in the khao mok gai. The whole dish is spice-forward but not spicy. If you see this on the menu, please order it. It is a history lesson in flavor!
Thai by Night usually has a curry on the menu. On my recent visit, it was panang curry. Thai curries prepared in America tend to be overly focused on coconut milk and excessive sugar. The spices and herbs of the curry paste are typically lost, resulting in a generic creamy dish. Thankfully that was not the case here. The panang curry walked the line between creamy and spicy—with the ever so light touch of sweetness. Ladled over heaps of steamed jasmine rice, this is one of my favorite comfort foods. If you enjoy the heat of a medium Buffalo wing, fear not—you can handle the panang curry.
My fellow spicy food lovers—the kapow is for us. Ground chicken, pork or tofu is stir fried with garlic, chilis, and Thai basil. When ordered three-stars spicy, they will throw in (a lot of) extra Thai chilis. Please order this dish as is before you try a spicier level. Add a sunny-side up egg—then you can combine them to create the perfect morsel—the creamy egg yolk, spicy and garlicky kapow, with crisp egg white edges along with jasmine rice. If you do order your kapow three-stars spicy, I recommend getting a delicious and creamy Thai iced tea for when you are breathing fire.
Thai by Night features traditional Thai desserts like mango sticky rice but also more American ones like sticky toffee pudding. While one may not immediately consider ordering sticky toffee pudding at a Thai restaurant, you will want to in this case. Made in-house, it is a custardy and delightfully dark caramel ending to the meal. The mango and sticky rice is a feast for your stomach and your eyes. The rice is a gorgeous blue—thanks to the butterfly pea flower harvested and dried by the chef’s mother in Thailand. This dessert is often too sweet, but, again, the chef showed an astute hand in keeping it balanced.
Thai by Night also offers classic standbys like cashew chicken, tom yum soup (featuring local mushrooms!), and yes, pad thai. It will be tempting (and tasty!) to get the Thai dish everyone loves. Resist the urge. Try something new (to you) from Thai by Night’s menu, and who knows? Maybe spring rolls, papaya salad, and gai yang will become your idea of the perfect summer meal.