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A Review of Ubon Thai Cuisine Restaurant in Wilmington

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The geang deang is served with freshly sliced pineapple and vegetables. Photograph by Jared CastaldiAt a Glance

Ubon Thai Cuisine
936 Justison St., Wilmington, 656-1706, ubonthaicuisine.com

Recommended Dishes: Panang meatballs, geang garee curry, pad Thai

Prices: Appetizers: $8-$10, Entrées: $13-$18

 

 

The first few beads of sweat began to form about four forkfuls into geang garee, an incendiary plate of potatoes, carrots and duck meat swimming in a rich sauce of coconut milk and roasted Thai curry powders.

I asked for this, I thought. I did this to myself. Me, and all those extra Thai chili peppers I requested.

Ask for a little extra heat from Wit Milburn, and heat ye shall receive. The beefy chef is certainly one of the more accommodating and jovial faces on Wilmington’s culinary scene. Chances are, if you’ve visited Wilmington’s Riverfront Market anytime in the last few years, you didn’t miss Milburn. Since 2007 he has been parked behind the counter at Jeenwong’s Thai Cuisine, along with his grandmother, Sirda Jeenwong, pleasing the lunchtime business crowds with broad smiles and crispy egg rolls.

Watching Milburn do his thing at the Riverfront was always a fun experience. All of his exuberance and passion for his family’s food was on full display most afternoons, whether he was barking lunch specials like a street vendor or trading jabs with a banker.

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Thai art and sculpture are on display at Ubon. Photograph by Jared CastaldiAt 30, Milburn is primed for the limelight. His Ubon Thai Cuisine, which opened last fall in Wilmington’s Riverfront Shops, is his long-sought venture. He first began sketching business plans at Delaware Tech some eight years ago.

And he already has a flare for the dramatic: He recruited celebrity pastry chef Dana Herbert (he of TLC’s “Next Great Baker” fame) to run dessert specials.

Celebrity co-signs aside, Ubon is the culmination of many things. For the Jeenwong and Milburn families, it represents 30 years of culinary tradition in America. The family, led by grandmother Sirda, started its first restaurant in Cleveland in 1982. Later it was relocated to Boothwyn, Pa., before settling into the then-new Wilmington Riverfront Market in 2000.

Jeenwong family dishes were always about Thai comfort food. All the curries and the noodle and rice dishes at Jeenwong’s are simple, honest family recipes bursting with flavor. Milburn loved to brag about his extra-crispy egg rolls—meaty and robust, and crammed with chicken, pork, shrimp and veggies. But the best of the bunch were always his mom’s Panang-style meatballs. The golf ball-sized morsels are rich and warming, with a smoky undercurrent of Thai chiles that settle and smolder in the mouth. And that sauce, that thick, luscious elixir that coats every bite in a rich Panang curry sauce, lures you in with a hint of coconutty sweetness, before knocking you down with flavor.
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Rose Johnson delivers a red lotus cocktail. Photograph by Jared CastaldiLuckily, Milburn brought the meatballs and many of his family’s recipes to Ubon. Look no further than the Floating Market—an appetizer sampler that combines recipes from all three generations onto one plate: Wit’s Thai guy chicken wings, grandma Sirda’s famous egg rolls and mom Kamphon’s momochas dumplings.

Thai guy wings, on a cold winter day, were a revelation. A sinus-clearing chile sauce clung to crispy skin, emanating a strong acid hit of dried peppers. A few Tiger beers and a football game was all I needed. Momochas—egg noodles stuffed with a hearty mix of crab, shredded chicken and veggies—dripped with too much grease for my tastes. A tad more finesse engendered great things in som tam salad, a crunchy, fresh slaw of green papaya, long beans and crisp veggies and basil leaves, barely dampened with sweet and sour vinaigrette. Though, sadly, it was not prepared tableside as advertised, it did render a fresh element to my meal that cut right through all the hot chiles and rich sauces.

Thai standards fared equally well. Ubon’s pad Thai (always a good litmus test) stood sturdy with a well-balanced mélange of tofu, plump shrimp, rice noodles and veggies. More vital was Milburn’s deft hand at seasoning, as he never once let the potential powder keg of fish sauce and tamarind juice overwhelm his dish. Instead, the normally strong seasonings slithered through the ingredients silently, leaving traces of sweet, sour and salty, the coveted Bingo board of Thai cuisine.

Elsewhere, Ubon’s fried rice packed a punch that far exceeded the dish’s boilerplate reputation, but the same couldn’t be said for pad see ew, a broad-noodle stirfry. Its light, soy flavors paled in contrast to Ubon’s flashier dishes.
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Sous chef Khom Phete cooks the pad see ew. Photograph by Jared CastaldiA few weeks into service, Ubon’s bar service was still a work in progress. Signature cocktails—like the delicious, lime- and lemongrass-laced bon hao—began materializing, as did a budget-friendly wine list. One beverage of note is Ubon’s Thai tea, a milky, icy, heavenly sweet drink that sold fast—even on the coldest days.

Ubon is nicely appointed—the most sophisticated dining area among the Shipyard Shops’ blocky beehive. Vivid reds and golds play against partitioned cubbyholes that house beautiful Thai art and sculpture.

While Ubon is a surefire step up in decor, it’s clear that, in a culinary sense, Milburn still has one foot stuck in the old Riverfront stand. There was nary a sour note among the many curry, rice and stir-fries, but after three visits, I felt like I’d seen it all. A few unique daily specials, or a bit more variation on the theme could go a long way in capturing the sophisticated crowd Ubon targets.

While table hopping one night, the chef told me a story: A few days after opening, a customer had the gall to doubt the authenticity of one of Ubon’s dishes.

“How can he tell me we aren’t traditional?” the chef asked me. “My family is Thai and these are our recipes.”

True enough. But Milburn has the talent and the drive to push Ubon even further, and to write an even more exciting chapter in his family’s delicious history.

 

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