by Eric Ginsburg
When I wrote about Xia Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar last summer, several readers pointed me to Hakka Chow, another Asian fusion-style restaurant in Winston-Salem. But as soon as that piece came out in November, other residents said I’d missed the mark. The real treasure, they argued — at least for Thai food — stood across the parking lot at the Basil Leaf.
Xia no longer occupies a storefront on the south side of downtown Winston-Salem, having recently been replaced, and let’s just say Hakka Chow wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. But Basil Leaf, located in the same shopping center off Hanes Mall Boulevard, deserves the adoration it receives.
Since my friend Camilo moved to Winston-Salem a few years ago, he’s made the trek to Basil Leaf for flavorful, authentic Thai food, calling it easily his favorite in town. He returned with our friends Cade and Andrew — two newcomers who also live in the Camel City — and me last week, and we found it hard to disagree with him.
We all considered the massaman curry Camilo ordered, labeled as brown curry on the menu, but with a desire to sample the breadth of the menu, we branched out. Cade, a vegetarian who’s a fan of Downtown Thai and who also compared the food to fare from restaurants in his native Chicago, chose his standby pad kee mao, or drunken noodles with chili, carrots, bell peppers, fresh basil, onions and broccoli.
Drawn to the curries, Andrew made a last-second switch to the panang, a sweeter option with kaffir and lime leaves.
Knowing I wanted noodles, I went with the lad nar, a pan-fried rice noodle dish with broccoli, mushrooms, baby corn, zucchini and carrots, all doused with a thin brown gravy sauce.
The lad nar, with its assortment of colorful vegetables and added chicken, may have been the most photogenic of the bunch, and it was certainly delicious. The fat, wide noodles clung together a little, and I scooped out clumps with meat and veggies with easily apportioned balance in each bite.
By the time I tried Cade’s, he’d already added a heaping portion of extra heat, admittedly a nice touch alongside his more neutral tofu in particular. Don’t get the wrong idea though — Andrew elected to add tofu rather than meat to his even though he isn’t a vegetarian, and highly recommended its role in his curry entrée.
Each of us felt satisfied with our choices, and having sampled all of them, I can say I was happy with their selections as well. We mostly wiped our plates clean. But only Camilo remarked that he could’ve drank his massaman curry like soup, proudly displaying a coconut, tamarind and peanut-flavored mustache as a badge of honor after finishing.
I can see why — the filling brown curry that comes with potatoes has long been my favorite Thai meal, not too hot and a little thicker and even-keeled than its counterparts but just as flavorful. And Basil Leaf’s version does the curry justice.
Camilo added pork to it: not exactly a protein commonly associated with the dish, which is thought to be Muslim in origin, but still tasty.
We tried a variety of beers too, from the more standard Sapporo to the Singapore lager called Tiger and the different yet similarly basic Vietnamese Export 33. None are about to wind up on any hipster beer blogs, but Cade and I particularly appreciated them after adding spicy heat to our meals.
Camilo offered that he’s heard good things about the sushi here too, and the sushi chef’s station is the first thing you see when you walk in the door. Like other Asian restaurants in the region, Basil Leaf has apparently found that providing an array of cuisine is the best approach, though an overlap with countries like Cambodia or Vietnam would make more sense. But none of us considered the sushi menu, and not because we doubted our friend’s accuracy — there’s just no reason.
If anything I’d come back on a Tuesday, when certain sushi rolls are $5 and the five sakes — again a nod to the popularity of Japanese cuisine — are similarly marked down.
But I did not leave with regrets, only wishing we’d tried the duck with red curry sauce specialty or the poo pad pong (deep-fried soft-shell crab) with kari sauce, two of the restaurant’s pricier specialties. Or maybe next time I’d go for one of the 10 stir-fries that we missed entirely, especially the gingery pad khink with herb sauce or another with eggplant.
I know I won’t have any trouble convincing the guys to come with me.
Visit the Basil Leaf Thai & Sushi Restaurant at 690 St. George Square Court (W-S) or see lovethaibasil.com for more info.