“Oh, that can’t be the right door,” one would think upon entering Thai Orchid on Mill St. in Orono. “This is someone’s house.”
In fact, both are correct. When you open the door to Thai Orchid, you not only enter a restaurant, you become immersed in the culture of homeland Thailand, where the rich aroma of exotic spices fill the nose and invite you to sit down. But the “home” in “homeland” is quite apparent in the restaurant’s aesthetic, with worn wooden booths and laminate tables being ubiquitous among bright green walls adorned with Buddhist imagery. In many ways, the dining room could use an update. The bar, however, is sleek and modern, with pink and blue lights running underneath the bar top and tall black tables dominating the space.
Immediately you will become flustered by the multitude of offerings at Thai Orchid. The menu is eight pages and comes with a separate, laminated insert of various specialty dishes. Should you get pad thai ($9.95), the famed noodle dish that Thai Orchid prepares with stir-fried shrimp, chicken and eggs and tops with peanuts, sprouts and scallions? You could keep it simple and and order the Thai fried rice ($8.95), a general mix of vegetables, egg and your choice of chicken, pork or beef.
Or you could be daring, and order the “Lover’s Honeymoon” ($15.95), which the menu describes as a “marriage” of chicken and shrimp that also features green peppers, water chestnuts and pineapple, a dish the menu asserts is so good that, “Only the wedding night was better.” If you’re not worried about any possible affliction, pair it with a boozy scorpion bowl from the bar menu ($15) and you’ll have a Valentine’s Day to remember.
Thai steamed dumplings ($5.25) arrived piping hot and filled with ground pork, chicken, shrimp and vegetables. Served with a menial slaw of red and green cabbage topped with a twist of orange, they were plump and round and perfectly bite-sized. The filling, albeit dry, was soft and flavorful — pork lent a fatty richness that complemented the light flavor of the shrimp. A sweet brown sauce provided the necessary moisture, as did a light drizzle of sweetened crushed peanut sauce served over the dumplings. If there were vegetables in these dumplings, I wouldn’t know it, but I didn’t miss them — the egg noodle skin was soft and lightly chewy, the filling was flavorful and the sauce brought the two together in matrimony.
Pad See Ew with beef ($9.95) arrived as soon as the appetizer plate was cleared away — what punctuality! — and, as it was placed in front of me, I was reminded of the homey ambience of the restaurant. It was plated much like food would be served at home: somewhat on the sloppy side, with little regard to aesthetics. Wide rice noodles — stir-fried with carrots, broccoli, peanuts and scallions in a sweet soy sauce — the rice noodles were visibly overcooked and, to the tooth, lacked bite and were quite starchy. My inner-Italian shook his head in shame. The vegetables were almost too fresh, so tender crisp as to taste raw. The ingredients did not receive the treatment they deserved, but nevertheless, the dish had great flavor. Delicately sweet, with a moderate combination of fragrant chili and subtle heat, it was warm and comforting. I ate the whole thing.
Red curry with chicken ($10.95) lent a luscious aroma to the table — a fine balance of coconut milk, peppers and tomatoes perfumed the booth with indulgent spice and warmth. The white rice served with the curry came in the cutesy shape of a bear — perhaps a little much, but it provided giggles and odd fascination.
Thai Orchid is unique in that it provides great tasting Thai food in an unexpected location. One can question its authenticity, but authenticity is not Thai Orchid’s goal. That goal is rather to provide a comfortable space for its patrons, who receive generous portions at reasonable prices.
Of course, this invites those of “worldly” tastes to criticize a restaurant’s every move. A couple at the table adjacent to us continually asked about a specific dessert they had enjoyed at “other restaurants,” but was not available at Thai Orchid. Visibly and audibly annoyed, they caused the server, and us fellow diners much distress.
“Foodies” aside, it can be said that, while tasty, Thai Orchid does little to impress, and this they achieve. Thai Orchid’s dated decor may have acted as a precursor to the food’s presentation and cooking technique, but it is undeniable that the restaurant’s service is excellent and its large variety of flavorful dishes are a sure winner.
Thai Orchid is located at 28 Mill St. in Orono and is open for lunch and dinner most days, and dinner on Sunday.