If you've been in search of the perfect spring roll, look no further
SalaJai restaurant, located at 542 Tranquille on Kamloop's North Shore is Kamloops only remaining completely Thai cuisine restaurant. Warunee's Thai Restaurant, which was also situated in the North Shore district closed last winter, and I was very pleased to hear advertisements this past month about SalaJai. Sala , meaning "rest area", and Jai meaning "heart", translates to the owner's motto for this, their third Thai food restaurant, as "rest area for the heart". The couple had previously owned two other locations located in Blind Bay and Salmon Arm BC. I have to say, I had pretty high expectations for this meal out as a close friend of mine had only months ago gushed about the "amazing Thai food restaurant in Salmon Arm" that "I had to try!" I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this new restaurant then, was under the same ownership and now in Kamloops. In terms of my expectations of the Thai food experience, I have to say that I had none. I have had limited experience in the discovery of Thai cuisine, really only once while out at Warunee's and with my own Pad Thai creative cooking at home. For whatever reason I have always been drawn to want to experience more... might it be the spices they use? Spicy heat and peanut sauces, rice noodles, and yes, I've always loved sweet Thai chili sauce, which seems to be a flavor that I seek on everything from potato chips to dipping sauces for coconut shrimp. My mouth was watering in anticipation of this happening in SalaJai.
A lot of hole in the wall restaurant locations are just that- in an unexpected area, generally amidst shops and stores that one wouldn't normally frequent, that's all I'll say about it's site. Enter SalaJai... hear the "dong" as you enter, and are greeted by, at that time, one of the restaurant owners, Ken. I have to admit, personability is not his strong suit, however, the lovely and accommodating young Thai gentleman who took over our meal mid-service, made up for Ken's shortcomings in terms of enthusiasm and customer service. The restaurant is a large space, there are less tables then one would expect for such an area which leads it to feel a little bit under furnished and cold. The walls are a deep rich purple with imagery from Thailand and an amazing elephant head sculpture hanging from the wall, which has to be darn near life-size. It has character, it also is very clean and new feeling.
The menu has a wonderful array of options, all of which can be made vegetarian (as indicated in print), and there is also a heat scale, indicating the spice factor which an individual can use to depict the intensity of flavor they would prefer. It was unclear however, whether or not the heat scale was only pertinent to the curry dishes, or for the entire menu, as I found when I ordered all of my mom and my dishes "extra hot" and was told the extra heat would be served on the side. As we went through our second request for "extra hot sauce and chillies please", I questioned whether or not they had not made our dishes extra spicy initially because they didn't believe we could handle the heat, or if the chef merely could not crank it up with the dishes we ordered. In any case, when ordering right from the menu, do not worry to have your socks knocked off by an intense heat, it's not there.
There are appetizers, soups, salads, seafood dishes, main courses, noodle dishes and coconut curry dishes. The menu list of items is quite extensive, which is lovely, though there are only two items for dessert, which are typical Thai items, and so didn't detract from the large array of other options on the menu. I might add, at this time, they are also lacking a liquor license. On a night out I do enjoy pairing my spicy ethnic foods with wine, tonight, as having to work afterwards, the fact that they couldn't serve wine was disconcerting, though I could anticipate that them not having one in the not so distant future may turn away perspective clientele. Printed on one side of the menu are instructions for how to order a satisfying meal experience, they suggest ordering two or more menu items per group of two. It hurts me to say this, but it has to be said : my first thought about ordering two dishes was, "There is not a dish under $12 (minus appetizers), I don't feel the need to order two of anything..." I feel that when there are menu items that are $10 or less, I am far more inclined to order a multitude of items to have a full dining experience. Therefore, we decided to start with vegetarian spring rolls (2), an order of Tom Yum Gai, and a Pad Thai to share.
Now let me tell you about these spring rolls! Flaky, crisp and fresh. They tasted as though they hadn't touched the hot oil of a deep fryer, and had a mild sweet chili sauce for dipping. They were a fair size and left me licking my fingers and considering placing an order for more. I reluctantly refrained. Generally speaking, in any Chinese food restaurant, I usually have a hard time enjoying an egg roll/spring roll... this was not the case tonight. If you have sworn off of oil-ladened spring rolls at any other restaurant, though have always ordered them still, please take a chance here and nab at least two.
The Tom Yum Gai was a beautiful melody of mild and soothing flavors. A lemongrass soup with slices of fresh ginger root, fresh cilantro, and plenty of mushrooms and chicken bobbing at it's surface. The soups are said to be sufficient for a party of four, and that is the case. If you have not had the pleasure of experience lemongrass in any dish, please take a leap of faith and dive into this dish. If you are currently battling any type of cold symptom, which my company was, then this is the perfect comfort soup for you. The fresh cilantro and delicate broth blend beautifully together and if you happen to have an accidental bite of the ginger root, firstly, pleasure do not swallow it because the after effects of indigestion are awful, but secondly, savor it. The ginger only adds to the flavor profile of the soup, it also aids in digestion.
With trying to sound as positive and happy-go-lucky as possible, I will now move on to the Pad Thai. Pad Thai is one of those dishes that I feel is a safe bet for any North American wanting to break into the Thai cuisine scene. It is a dish composed of broad rice noodles, tofu, shrimp, and a cooked egg tossed in at the end of the cooking process, lightly but completely covered in a mild-spiced peanut type of sauce. It's like the macaroni and cheese of Thailand. It's a simple dish, it's also delicious. It's hearty and warm and delicious, this Pad Thai, for it's portion, was also overpriced. There was not an over-abundance of small shrimp or tiny tofu pieces, which is fine, and to be expected as protein is always the first item to be skimped out on in restaurants due to cost, but the rice noodles, if anything, could have been doubled to compensate for the $13.50 price tag. With that being said, the lack of protein and small rice noodle portion left a bitter taste in my mouth, even with how delicious the meal itself was. I couldn't help but ask myself "would I have been satisfied with this as a meal to myself?" and the answer was "non". Not that the entire portion for one individual would not suffice, but rather, that there still would be more to be desired.
In the end, were we happy with the SalaJai experience? Somewhat. We left feeling like, had we ordered differently, we might have had a more pleasureful Thai food experience. We felt as though we had potentially ordered wrong. With that being said, I will be giving Salajai another chance, at least once. To venture into unmarked gustatory capabilities. The dishes were lovely, they did not disappoint, though after receiving the bill in the end, after the compilation of the experience in it's entirety, was considered over-priced.
SalaJai is worth a shot and a drive to the North Shore. On a cold night, with some hot company, at least try it out, order a hearty-portion of soup to start and follow with an entree to share, and don't forget to try the spring rolls. Introduce your drab evening to the heat that Thailand cuisine has to offer, especially if you have no other experience to compare it to other than the gluttony of enjoying far too many sweet chili flavored crackers. Welcome to Salajai Thai Restaurant, let your heart be at rest, order some extra chillies on the side, and enjoy the rouse of your inner incalescence.