Photo by Dhanraj EmanuelPinto Thai
3381 Adams Ave.
A pinto, in Thailand, is a stackable carrier made up of smaller containers; kids take them to school as lunchboxes, families get their takeout delivered in them. Lots of cultures employ them; in India they're called tiffin boxes, and Japan has bento boxes that come jubako-style, stackable for storing and serving food. They're economically and environmentally friendly and practical. Plus, they're sort of cute.
Pinto Thai, the restaurant, is equally sweet. It's small enough to be called cozy, but not crowded; everything is placed just-so. There are fresh flowers on each table, incense burning at two beautiful Buddhist altars and pleasant gurgling from a water fountain that blocks out any street noise from outside, where their little sidewalk patio is lined with flower boxes.
I made note of Pinto Thai's opening this spring, but it took me a long while to make it in, loyal as I was to my still-most-favorite Thai joint, Sab-E-Lee. But an e-mail from a friend prompted me to finally check it out, and I've been back several times since. It may not knock any place off its rung in the ladder of frequent eats, but it's strong enough to sprinkle into the rotation. It helps that the restaurant is flanked by two other favorites, the beer-bliss of Blind Lady Ale House and the first-rate frozen treats at Viva Pops, on a stretch of Adams Avenue in Normal Heights that's becoming a regularly traveled beat. (Don't worry, I still love you, 30th and Convoy streets.)
As a litmus test, I ordered green papaya salad and larb, two dishes with complex, invigorating flavors. The green papaya salad lacked the pungency that comes from the addition of a briny seafood component, like dried shrimp. But it was quite tasty all the same—a bit sweeter than I'm used to, but fresh and crisp with the crunchy julienne of green papaya tangled with shaved carrots and green beans, all carefully presented on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Thai food, with its colorful curries, chilies and herbs is always eye-catching, but the presentation at Pinto Thai is particularly artistic.
Larb is meat or fish chopped into a warm salad with mint and other delicious garnishes; it's what I hope will be one of my last bites on Earth. When our server asked if I'd like the dish—made here with chicken—mild, medium or hot, I asked that she have it made to the spice level that would suit her taste. Once I started eating, she was kind, and worried enough, to check in with me at least three times to make sure that I was OK. It was spicy, but not nearly close to the palate-searing intensity of some versions I've eaten. There's also a tofu version of the larb. Vegetarians and vegans will appreciate that there are more meat-free options here than at most Thai restaurants.
I tried a seasonally appropriate pumpkin curry with tofu, vegetables and the sweet surprise of pineapple. Since I was feeling relatively virtuous, I had it with steamed brown rice instead of white, which is especially nutty and appealingly chewy here. I also liked the green curry with eggplant, green beans and bell pepper that had a nice, warm spice. No beer or wine is served here, but you won't have room for any other beverages after you finish the foot-long Thai iced tea or coffee, which effectively cools any lingering heat. The wonderful homemade coconut ice cream, creamy and decadent, helps, too.
While Pinto Thai isn't exponentially better than most, the atmosphere and attentive service definitely bumps it up a notch or two. Food and flavor are foremost, of course, but we eat with all of our senses.
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