Food & Drink » Dish

Mai Thai Adds a Twist to the Izakaya Trend

Sampling the new small plates fusion menu


We've come a long way since the dark days of the American happy hour, when cocktail weenies, cold nachos and corn nuts mingled with a two-for-one-fueled, pre-dusk buzz. Thankfully, more sophisticated fare like Spanish tapas has seeped into this once stolid nightly ritual, giving the best modern-day happy hours broader cultural flavor and bolder, chef-driven flair.

Mai Thai restaurant in Boise is doing its part by offering a new bar menu that borrows from the Japanese izakaya tradition. Often described as a Japanese version of tapas, izakaya dishes are small meals meant to be shared and ordered progressively as the whim strikes and drinks flow (served all evening at Mai Thai, as well as during its twice-nightly, two-for-one happy hour).

Like tapas, izakaya dishes can vary dramatically depending on the establishment serving them, and Mai Thai manager Michael Reed says the restaurant has loosened that already loose definition by including not only Japanese but also Thai, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian dishes.

"We're more trying to capture the concept rather than exactly the type of menu that would be offered in an izakaya restaurant," Reed says.

Mostly, that works.

Mai Thai's bar, with its casual, pan-Asian look, is a fitting spot to sip a tangy, basil-garnished cocktail (No Star $10) and share the Sunomono ($3), a crisp, cucumber salad. Citrusy, half-moon slices of cucumber spiked with chewy bits of seaweed, radish shoots and sesame seeds are continents away from the overcooked, calorie-laden world of old-fashioned American bar food. A bright tangle of contrasting textures and subtle, salty-sharp flavors, that dish was our favorite of seven that a friend and I sampled on a recent Saturday night.

The rice paper-wrapped summer roll ($3) was similarly refreshing, spiked with cilantro, basil, tofu and a smoky sweet hoisen sauce. The Thai basil chicken ($4) and Asian lettuce wraps ($4) with minced chicken were more substantial but shared those same clean, contrasting flavors.

The remaining three dishes, sadly, lost that delicate Asian balance. The eggplant Donkaku ($4) was two-dimensional in flavor despite what the menu calls a miso/sake/soy glaze. The barbecue pork ribs ($5) were tender but candy-apple sweet. And the miso-marinated salmon ($7), though pretty on the plate, was just plain overcooked.

Still, I'd go back. Mai Thai's two-month-old izakaya menu clearly needs refinement, yet compared to a plate of cocktail weenies, it's a giant leap forward for American bar food.