As trade birthed the world’s great food cultures millennia ago, so it shapes them today. Whereas merchants once conveyed exotic seasonings and techniques across Eurasia and northern Africa by ship and by caravan, ingredients now travel the globe in hours, ideas at the speed of the Internet. Cuisines that evolved over centuries in response to waves of new influences from abroad are spreading across the world faster than ever and, as a consequence, continuing to evolve in delightful ways, even as they stay the same.
For evidence, look no further than the nearest strip mall, where a new wave of restaurateurs mingles various Asian styles with a calculated promiscuity. The first generation of such places in Delaware presented these in grand fashion, in dining rooms with a sort of contemporary Wabi-sabi aesthetic and prices to match. Now Chaiyo Sushi & Thai brings a second, lower-key and very welcome generation of Pan-Asian places to its height.
Chaiyo combines our love of sushi, our craving for Thai and bargain prices in what seems to be a recipe for business success. The proof is three new restaurants in two years, the first two in Dover and Camden. The newest opened in Stanton in August.
Even after 30 years of sushi in Delaware, and nearly as long since the first Thai restaurant opened in Wilmington, there are too few good places to get either. Given that Thai is currently the world’s favorite food, that seems almost cruelly unfair. Chaiyo helps to remedy that.
There are no deep dives to be had here. You won’t explore the full range of noodles in Thai cuisine, for example, or find anything so exotic as sea urchin among the sushi offerings. The menu is limited to the standards, but there is plenty to satisfy when the Jones is on.
The sushi bar//Photo by Javy Diaz
Chaiyo, named for a district just north of Bangkok, is as slickly designed as any place in so modern a city. At the Stanton location, a gleaming red roof hangs above the sushi bar. Pendant lights hang in a row above the black-lacquered tables and chairs that face the long red banquette in the main dining area. A mural of a seascape spans the length. The other two restaurants look very much the same.
We sat in the sushi bar area and dined accordingly. The appetizer menu offers standards such as edamame, tempura of shrimp and of vegetables, and chicken satay. We started with a straightforward shumai and found it to be a bit doughy, perhaps steamed too long (the dumplings can also be ordered fried), but with plenty of shrimp flavor and a good soy-ginger dipping sauce. We chased with the Kamikaze salad, a generous bowlful of chilled octopus sliced into long ribbons and tossed in sesame oil with shavings of ginger and bits of wakame. (It sounds so much more appealing than mere seaweed, which is delicious nonetheless.)
I thought I could have made a meal of the octopus alone—until the Bang Bang shrimp arrived. Six large, tender shrimp were beautifully presented on long leaves of Romaine garnished with hibiscus flowers. But it was the coating on the shrimp that made the big impression—a perfect balance of chili sauces, honey and mayonnaise that has slow-burned itself into memory.
From left: Kamikaze salad; the signature Chaiyo roll//Photos by Javy Diaz
Bang Bang shrimp may not be an original dish, nor is it, strictly speaking, authentically Thai, but it is a crowd-pleaser wherever it is offered, so it is a smart choice for the menu. It also demonstrates a certain sense of humor Chaiyo has about itself. That sense shows up in names such as Tuna Mania, an appetizer of sushi and sashimi in various styles, the similar Amazing Yellowtail sashimi appetizer, and the Playboy and Bagel sushi rolls, the latter made with smoked salmon and cream cheese—which, with mayonnaise, is the ultimate proof of how American tastes are changing Asian cuisines (at least as they’re prepared here). If we were to do a 23andme-style DNA test on our favorite foods, we’d likely be shocked at their origins.
My inner sushi snob prevents me from ordering anything with cream cheese, so we opted for a trio of rolls. The spicy tuna was a sturdy, straightforward, satisfying affair of nori rolled around white tuna spiced with Sriracha. The Spider roll put deep-fried softshell crab front and center, with avocado and lettuce—nori on the outside—and drizzled with unagi (eel) sauce, a blend of soy sauce, syrup and rice wine vinegar. The signature Chaiyo roll was a fat wrap of tempura shrimp, avocado and wasabi-tinged crab with soy-ginger sauce, with tempura flakes sprinkled over the rice (no nori) and topped with a “special sauce.” (My best guess is that it was based on avocado and wasabi.) It was a highlight.
The Thai sections of the menu offer most of what you might expect: noodle and fried-rice dishes, your choice of meats and seafood stir-fried with traditional sauces such as Thai basil and ginger, and the trinity of curries: red, green and massaman. We sampled the massaman with chicken. The heavenly blend of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, nutmeg and other spices exemplified Thai’s hallmark balance of spicy and aromatic flavors. The main ingredients show an emphasis on the balance of textures and colors. The dish on the whole speaks for itself as one of the world’s most favored foods, and Chaiyo does it justice.
Delicious pad see eiw is typical of the Thai offerings//Photo by Javy Diaz
The same was true of pad see eiw, a popular street food of flat rice noodles stir-fried with various meats and vegetables—chicken and Chinese broccoli in this case—and egg in a dark, complex mix of soy sauce, oyster sauce and vinegar. Done well, the egg scrambles into bits of char-grilled goodness that defines the dish. Again, Chaiyo hits the mark.
Such solid execution makes Chaiyo a fine introduction to sushi and Thai cuisine for the uninitiated. For aficionados, it offers a solid option to parties torn between one or the other. And with its beyond-fair prices, it’s the kind of place that could become a weekly favorite.
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Chaiyo Sushi & Thai
1030 Forrest Ave., Suite 116, Dover • 678-0111
1151 E. Lebanon Road, Dover • 538-5214
1724 W. Newport Pike, Wilmington • 543-6362
Prices: Appetizers, $4–$12; soups, $2–$5; entrées, $10–$15; sushi, sashimi and rolls, $5–$12
Recommended: Octopus salad, Bang Bang shrimp, spider roll, massaman curry