“There it is,” I said to Sean. Even with our GPS, we might have missed Sawasdee, a Thai restaurant in Warrenville on the way to Aiken – located inside a nondescript red brick building, hung with fluorescent lights and baskets of fake flowers.
It doesn’t really look like a restaurant, but we’d heard great things about the food (and we’ll always drive for good Thai!). Inside though was a different story: The walls were painted a buttery gold and a soft sage, with painted bamboo tapestries of natural scenes, carved artifacts and other Thai artwork. Silvery blue damask cloths top the tables, with chairs and booths in a polished and deeply upholstered mustard-colored naugahyde. There was a faded ornateness to it that reminded me of Chinese restaurants in Augusta in the ’80s, and it made me smile.
We were meeting our friends Tricia and PJ and were looking forward to sampling a lot of dishes, family-style. Tricia started us off right away by ordering Thai tea and I followed suit. The sweetened iced tea is rich and creamy with a layer of condensed milk and tastes almost like coffee.
Sawasdee offers a wide range of choices, including appetizers, salads, soups, curries, stirfrys, rice dishes, noodle soups, noodle dishes, fowl dishes (I love that this is how they describe them!), a kids’ menu and desserts.
Foods are listed under their Thai names with a description of the ingredients, and they’re both familiar (like spring rolls and satay) and unusual (bean thread salad or minted ground meat, anyone?).
We decided to start our meal with the gyowgrob or fried wontons and a huge family-size pot of the shrimp coconut soup. The wontons were crispy brown triangles stuffed with a mildly flavored ginger pork and sweet dipping sauce on the side. Good, but it was the soup that made me swoon.
The menu describes it as a “famous aromatic soup,” and I’ve had it in other restaurants, but this was it at its best. There were so many flavors: tangy lemongrass, creamy coconut milk, fresh seafood, tomatoes, onions and just a touch of heat. It was fantastic, and I quickly served up a second helping.
Entrée-wise, we each ordered something from a different part of the menu: I chose the salmon fish curry, Sean the three-flavor fish, Tricia the roast duck with chili and PJ the beef pad Thai.
“Is that good?” we asked our waiter. “Oh yeah,” he said with a bob of his head and a smile.
All the dishes except for the noodles came with rice, and we each served ourselves with a scoop from each plate. The panang curry sauce of my salmon dish reminded me very much of the soup, thanks to a coconut milk and lemongrass base. With my rice, I could have eaten that all day, but I was disappointed in the salmon itself, which was fishy.
Likewise, Sean’s three-flavor fish shone with a light and bright chili sauce (made from a blend of three sauces!), but the seasonal fish under that sauce was a pondy tilapia. I think in other seasons, that dish would have been stellar, but the tilapia’s strong muskiness overpowered even the chili sauce’s heat and flavor.
I had the bad luck of getting a very chewy piece of duck at my first bite, but my second? The meat was dark and oily, sweet and tender (as duck should be), with a deliciously spicy flavor that burned my throat yet had me going back for more.
Everyone else voted the duck the best dish of the night, but I held out for the beef pad Thai. Sure, it’s the cliché dish, but it’s also a litmus test for good Thai in my view. The noodles here had a light, eggy texture, and the dish itself was nutty and slightly sweet. I had to keep reminding myself that PJ had ordered it to keep myself from going back for thirds and fourths.
We ended the meal with two desserts to share: Thai doughnuts with a peanut dipping sauce and sweet rice & mango.
The rice, I will say, was strange: a sticky, glutinous rice topped with chopped mango and a coconut cream. My mouth just wasn’t sure what to do with this unusual sweet rice, although the flavor of the coconut and mango was good. I fared better with the doughnuts, which were slightly crisp and topped with honey and chopped peanuts.
Even with four entrees, two appetizers and two desserts, I left Sawasdee feeling just satisfied. The dishes are a little small, especially when you consider the portions that are typical at most Americanized Asian restaurants. The difference here though is that you can tell that Sawasdee is truly authentic. The soup alone is worth the drive. Just make sure to program your GPS to get you there.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Sawasdee, 730 Augusta Road, Warrenville
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
ENTREE COST: $8 to $14
SECOND HELPING: (803) 663-6363, sawasdeeauthenticthaicuisine.com