By George Utley, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Although Rio is an international city, Thai food is not abundant and it can be difficult to find truly authentic Thai dishes, especially at prices foreigners may be used to. Yet in the absence of high immigration from Thailand, some entrepreneurs have tried a fusion of different culinary styles to provide the taste of Thai in Rio.
In New York or London there may be an abundance of mid-tier (yet authentic) Thai cuisine, in Rio the novelty comes with a price in most cases, along with a chic or upmarket decor. Fortunately for the lovers of spicy Thai food, some new options have been opening to round out the culinary scene in the Cidade Maravilhosa.
In regard to traditional Thai spice, “It’s a matter of adapting the taste for the Brazilian culture,” says Marcos Sodré, head chef of Sawasdee in Leblon. “At first I adapted the food for the Brazilian taste, not only reducing the spiciness but also the fragrancy.”
The idea proved so popular at this stylish restaurant, which started life in Búzios in 1997, which nowadays it is essential to book a table in advance, and a new branch is opening in Ipanema in June. Delicious Brazilian fusion food is served at discounted prices for an executive lunch, while entrées start at R$64.
Another institution of Thai food in Rio is Nam Thai just a few blocks away in Leblon. In this elegant, French colonial dining room a cosmopolitan clientele has enjoyed authentic Thai dishes since 2001. Entrées start at R$44, but most are closer to R$60 thus it is not considered inexpensive.
Also in chic Leblon, Mekong produces Indian, Vietnamese and Thai recipes, encouraging skeptical Cariocas to try more exotic dishes in an accessible and informal environment. “I think that Rio is slowly becoming more cosmopolitan and thankfully there are now more options for this type of cuisine,” says owner Mary Byker. “Our standout Thai dishes in my opinion are the Pad Thai and the Massaman Beef Curry.” Entrées start around R$40 here.
Opened in 2003 under Hotel Plaza in Ipanema, Opium offers some excellent Thai cuisine options. The menu also covers a wide variety of Asian culinary styles along with traditional Brazilian fare but the service from the hotel staff is often inattentive unfortunately, still, the Thai entrées start from R$48.
The other area of Zona Sul (South Zone) where Thai cuisine is taking off is Botafogo. Since 2011 My Thai has attracted customers with its friendly staff, casual atmosphere and low prices. Quick, snack-able and with plenty to choose from, the fast food format works so well here that they even offer curb-side delivery. Entrées start at R$26.95, notably less than options around Leblon and Ipanema.
The newest edition is Orienthai, which opened in 2012 also in Botafogo, serving an array of Thai and Indian dishes, from a menu designed by chefs from London’s popular Bombay Bicycle club. With a well researched wine list and enormous menu, entrées start from R$22.
While not as widespread here as in other parts of the world, it is still possible to satisfy one’s craving for Thai food in Rio. “In the past seventeen years I’ve seen a lot of restaurants opening and closing,” says Sodré. Today the majority of Thai restaurants in Rio are located at the high end, mainly tourist hotspots.