Dining review: Durham’s Bua Thai Cuisine serves a treasure trove of culinary surprises

Bua Thai Cuisine is in Durham’s Sutton Square. The pad thai is the best in town.

By Greg Cox

Originally published 8/24/2017

DURHAM The tom yum dumplings at Bua Thai Cuisine are a work of modern art, each one a plump, puckered pillow of pristine white, nestling in a sleek black ceramic spoon. Painstakingly placed to look as if they were casually strewn across the top of each dumpling, tiny straw mushrooms and chopped scallions add …

What’s that? You say you’re familiar with tom yum soup, but you’ve never heard of tom yum dumplings? Yeah, me neither, until I saw them on the menu at Bua, a deceptively modest-looking restaurant that opened in late March in Sutton Square.

That’s not to suggest that the dining room lacks charm. Chairs, stained a rich red evocative of Chinese lacquer, at glossy wood tables; prints of lotus blossoms and silk-clad women; and a constellation of rice winnowing baskets hanging from the ceiling combine in a cheerfully inviting blend of traditional and modern elements.

The setting is perfectly suited to chef Taylor Thiwaphat’s menu. Thiwaphat, who owns the restaurant with sisters Anita and Pat Eldridge, combines a lifelong familiarity with his native cuisine and training at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York to offer a menu of authentic Thai dishes and contemporary riffs on the cuisine.

Tom yum dumplings, filled with minced shrimp and mushrooms tinged with the lemongrass, kaffir lime and Thai chiles that give tom yum soup its characteristic hot-sour flavor, are one of those riffs. Crabmeat- and chicken-filled spring rolls are another. The rolls, a frequent nightly special, have proven so popular (that’s real crabmeat inside those textbook shatter-crisp wrappers) that Anita Eldridge, the restaurant’s charming manager, hints that they may soon turn up on the regular menu.

The Krapow Lamb under the Bua Chef’s Special is sautéed with red bell pepper in basil sauce over grilled lamb with steamed broccoli at Bua Thai Cuisine in Durham.

The Bua Chef’s Special section of the menu is a small treasure trove of entree surprises. Karee shrimp, for one, which serves up a curry powder-tinged medley of crabmeat, celery, onion and egg over deep-fried jumbo shrimp. Or krapow lamb, whose otherwise accurate description (“sautéed red bell pepper in basil sauce over grilled lamb with steamed broccoli”) fails to note that the lamb takes the form of chops. Five of them, cooked medium but still juicy and so tasty, you’ll find it hard to resist picking them up and gnawing on the bones. You have my permission.

It pays to check the chalkboard just inside the entrance, too, where nightly chef’s specials are posted. In addition to the crabmeat spring rolls, recent temptations have included exquisitely tender, char-grilled squid scattered across a small salad with a sweet-sour dressing on the side; a whole-fish entree (this one makes frequent appearances, though the presentation may vary); and tempura-battered okra pods that even the most diehard Southerner will concede give Mama’s cornmeal-breaded fried okra a run for its money.

The Pad Prik Catfish is deep-fried catfish stirred with red bell peppers, green beans and basil in prik khing sauce at Bua Thai Cuisine in Durham.

For all the delights of Thiwaphat’s novel presentations, his talent for rendering the traditional Thai dishes that make up the bulk of the offering are every bit as impressive. His pad thai, made with fresh rice noodles and a perfectly balanced sheen of a sauce, is the best in town.

The classic grilled beef salad is on point, too, pairing supple petals of beef with cucumber, tomato and slivers of red onion in chile-spiked lime dressing. Larb, the ground chicken variation on the salad theme, is likewise impressive. Larb tod transforms the ground chicken mixture into deep-fried meatballs, a classic delicacy rarely seen in these parts.

The Gai Yang is half of a Thai style marinated grilled chicken served with papaya salad, sticky rice and a spicy lime sauce at Bua Thai Cuisine in Durham.

Green papaya salad (som tam) is also first-rate. It’s available à la carte, but I can’t imagine ordering it in any other way than as part of the grilled chicken/sticky rice/papaya salad combo. Marinated in Thai spices and roasted before being finished to order on the grill, the chicken (especially the dark meat) is juicy beneath a nut-brown, char-mottled skin. Did I mention that you get half a chicken, and the combo only sets you back $18 ($8.95 at lunch for a slightly smaller portion that, at least when I ordered it, also included half a bird)?

OK, for a change of pace I’m sure one day I’ll be tempted to try one of the other options listed under the Bua Chef’s Combo, all of which pair sticky rice and green papaya salad with the meat of your choice: spicy beef (nam tok), grilled rib-eye (neua yang), or Thai sausage.

Curries are solid – the red leans a little sweet, the green comes closer to the standard I associate with a green Thai curry – though in my experience the kitchen tends to dial the heat back from the spice level you request. Cautious spicing seems to be a rule applied across the board, for that matter, though in my experience, restaurants specializing in notoriously spicy cuisines sometimes get less timid once you become a regular and they see you know what you’re getting in for.

There is a pastry case at Bua Thai Cuisine in Durham with a daily changing section of treats including this Coconut Cake which is moist and light.

For dessert, you can’t go wrong with the classic sticky rice and mango. On the other hand, you probably noticed the pastry case near the entrance when you walked in. Filled with a daily changing selection that might include macarons, tiramisu, a couple of cheesecake variations and a coconut cake (which further research recently revealed to be moist and light), the sweet tooth temptations are the handiwork of Pat Eldridge, who honed her pastry-making skills at the International Culinary Center in New York.

Pat Eldridge, who honed her pastry-making skills at the International Culinary Center in New York, puts the finishing touches on her Bua Custard Cake at Bua Thai Cuisine in Durham on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017.

Just one more delightful surprise, you might say, in a restaurant that surprises and delights at every turn.

ggcox55@gmail.com or themenunc.com

Bua Thai Cuisine is a deceptively modest-looking restaurant that opened in late March in Durham’s Sutton Square.

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Bua Thai Cuisine

5850-101 Fayetteville Road, Durham

984-219-7357

buathaidurham.com

Cuisine: Thai

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: cheerfully inviting

Noise level: low

Service: by and large, attentive and efficient

Recommended: tom yum dumplings, larb tod, pad thai, Bua Chef’s Combo, specials, coconut cake, macarons

Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday

Reservations: accepted

Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.