Salty. Sweet. Spicy. Sour. That’s the core of Thai cuisine. The simple balancing game that makes all cooking great is the foundation of Thai food, but with ingredients maybe less familiar and often more bold than we know in the western world. Still though, standard base ingredients like lime, chili, coconut milk, curry, and fish sauce are nothing to be intimidated by. Thai food has been gaining a following for years in Buffalo, and Rin Thai Bistro delivers craveable favorites to the walkable neighborhood where locally owned businesses beckon students, local families, tourists, curious foodies, and everyone in between.
I remember when I first heard about food from Thailand. There were lifestyle articles, probably circa the early 2000’s, that suggested trying Thai food was a kitschy idea for a date or for the adventurous soul. I seem to recall a lot of verbiage that I don’t think was meant as wordplay, encouraging people to “SPICE IT UP!!” I’ve never really gotten this. While spices like coriander and heat from chilis are Thai standards, the end product is usually simple comfort food. The word cozy comes to mind. And that’s true of Rin Thai’s overall vibe as well as all dishes I’ve sampled so far.
At Rin Thai, people come for the food, but stick around for the atmosphere. The space is small but inviting, with a clean, modern edge. Walking past a seasonal patio and in the door, diners enter a modest seating area, flooded by light from huge storefront windows. Additional, and in my opinion, prime, seating lines a small open kitchen area where food is cooked to order in front of guests. I haven’t been to Thailand, but I know street food is pervasive, and Rin Thai mirrors that image by making the kitchen a functional stage featuring a simple but great show: Here, I Made This For You.
I’ve visited the restaurant twice, and both times the servers were prompt and ready to take my order. However, each time, out of habit, I looked around for a menu, only to discover/remember that there is no menu. The meal selections are spelled out on a big chalkboard on the wall. I like the reduced waste of this system, and the hint that the cooks might be switching things up every now and again. I’m awarding additional bonus points for stainless steel chopsticks in place of wooden ones, but I will advise you that there’s a bit of a learning curve in using this reduced friction option.
When I visited last, there was a great seasonal special that I, and probably anyone who has ever used #fall, could not resist. Pumpkin curry served in an actual pumpkin! I chose chicken for my protein but I believe for many of the dishes, you can pick your own adventure. There are vegetarian, chicken, and shrimp options for most dishes, and pork for some others. The presentation was beautiful; pale yellow with bright red bell peppers in what almost looked like a hearty stew. At first I didn’t quite know how to approach eating out of an actual pumpkin. I opted to slowly add the perfectly cooked fluffy white rice to soak everything up. The flavors matched the impressive autumnal presentation. With this and all dishes I’ve tried here so far, it’s safe to say the portion sizes are generous. There was a sweetness from coconut milk and cubed pumpkin meat, a bit of heat, and lovely umami salt that I would have to bet is fish sauce.
An aside about fish sauce: First, I’d invite anyone reading this and wrinkling their nose and thinking “YUCK,” to give it a try. Used properly, it tastes like a way better soy sauce. There are scarier ingredients in lots of things you eat all the time, I promise. I will say that this flavor comes through strong at Rin Thai. I visited previously and tried the fiery udon and it was a strong flavor, balanced again by heat. This might be a bit much for some diners, but I personally love its rich, complex saltiness. Again, I think it comes back to balance. Fish sauce is intensely salty, but it can be balanced by acidity, spice, and sweetness.
Rin Thai does allow you to adjust spice level on a scale of 1-5. I enjoy about a medium to hot spice, so for me, the balance is perfect. If salty is not your thing and spicy isn’t either, you might want to advise your server, or try other dishes, like maybe soups or appetizers, though I can’t yet vouch for them.
I think even a person with less interest in strong flavors would still enjoy a meal here. In fact, I think this would be a great starter spot for a person new to Thai flavors. For me, these flavors were enjoyably bold, but not quite so off the charts as other local Asian eateries I’ve tried. It feels a lot like the ownership knows their Elmwood audience well and seeks to make food that is authentic to Thai flavors, but approachable.
I also tried the Pra Ram, again with chicken. More umami salty flavor here from assumed fish sauce or soy sauce, this time balanced by a rich peanut sauce. I liked the nutty flavor and the abundance of veggies. This dish came with a side of rice and included mushrooms, peas, carrots, red peppers, broccoli and a topping of crunchy peanuts. There was a subtle sweetness as well that equated to a well-rounded and overall yummy dish.
Both of my trips have been for lunch, and I was in and out in no time. If you’re not walking, parking on Bidwell was free and easy, but there is metered parking on Elmwood as well. I would definitely visit again and recommend trying it. I think this would be the perfect spot for anyone who’s already a fan of Thai food and wants to introduce friends who are not familiar with these great flavors.