The closing of Titaya’s around Christmas 2012 led to something of a Thai food diaspora in Austin, with the restaurant’s legions of devoted customers left to wander the city in search of a Plan B.
A sign taped to the restaurant’s door that winter indicated the closure for renovations would last a few months. But as the months stretched into a year, speculation mounted, and people wondered if the restaurant would ever return.
After a few false starts (and some misdirection by an apparently unauthorized Facebook page), Titaya’s reopened the first week of February. During the 13-month hiatus, the space transformed from a decidedly ’80s aesthetic with colorful geometric floor tiles and glass-topped tables covered with Eastern textiles to a bright, modern space with exposed white brick walls, wooden tables and chairs, a new bar area and colorful panels hanging from the ceiling.
The dining room didn’t get much added space, so there are tables situated closely together, cafeteria-style, in the middle of the booth-lined room. The waiting area, which feels like a holding pen at peak hours, remains a narrow corridor of musical chairs.
Titaya Timrerk’s brother, Ek, the former chef at Spin Modern Thai who now operates Kin & Comfort (see accompanying review), added a few new dishes to the expansive menu, but the mission has remained the same since Titaya opened the restaurant in late 2005 with the help of her brother and mother, Kanjana Timrerk.
“Everything has to taste authentic, and the food has got to be spicy,” the soft-spoken Titaya Timrerk said, repeating a mantra she learned from her mother.
Kanjana Timrerk works the front of house now, with Prakit Napapongsuriya serving as the restaurant’s head chef alongside Titaya, but you can taste the matriarch’s influence in a steaming bowl of jungle curry ($10.95). Her galangal-infused “Mom’s curry,” which has the floral breeze of lemongrass and hum of dried chilies, serves as the base for a fragrant broth packed with mushrooms, eggplant and green beans. Green peppercorn strands and broad basil leaves float on top, serving as a culinary seesaw to tip the dish toward added heat or an herbal cool.
Titaya’s imported a few of Ek’s dishes from Spin, like the refreshing larb sake ($9.95), a beautiful dish of cubed raw salmon tinged with chili and garlic and served with sliced tomatillos and halved grapes in a vinaigrette sweetened with palm sugar. I think the brisket fettuccine ($10.95) may have also been Ek’s creation. But the panang curry lacked depth of flavor, the noodles were limp and the brisket was tough in the dish intended to serve as Thai comfort food.
The “first bites” section of the menu is highlighted by a dish of crunchy and juicy fried chicken wings ($7.95) served beneath a scattered haystack of fried lemongrass, and succulent charred pork skewers ($6.95) served with a vinegary sauce that balanced the sweet, rich meat.
Tender squid, pliant mussels and tangy shrimp elevated a basic salad of greens, red onions and cherry tomatoes in the refreshing Yum Ta-Lay ($12.95). Greens spritzed with an orange oil dressing cut the savory flavors of pork loin sautéed with garlic and peppercorn ($11.95) in a dish that found a harmonious balance of salt and sweet.
Longtime fans of Titaya’s will recognize several of the former specials, including the fiery fried catfish hunks and crisp peppers of the mouth-singeing pad cha ($13.95), and the noodle and stir-fry sections feature a roster of Thai classics.
Pad Kee Mao with ground pork ($8.50) balanced acid, crunch, heat, sweetness and earth in a dish of flat noodles weaving their way around a tumult of tomatoes, bell peppers, Thai chilies, onions and mushrooms. The Pad Thai ($8.50) could have used some of that complexity, or at least a few more wedges of lime or pickled radish to bring more acid to a dish that tasted like stir-fried noodles tossed in peanut butter and sprinkled with nuts.
The sweetness was more welcome in a fantastic dessert of sticky rice with mango ($5.50), the bright school-bus-yellow ripe fruit feathered across a soft brick of rice glistening with the sheen of coconut milk. Our server delivered the dish with a calm smile despite the alarm triggered by a brief kitchen fire.
Working in a fast-paced restaurant where space is at a premium requires a server with a keen sense of timing and the ability to personably impart knowledge while not dallying. Each of my recent visits to Titaya’s introduced me to servers who struck that balance in unique ways. They stayed on their toes while not appearing harried, a tough balance to strike, especially with a group of hungry regulars waiting in the wings.
5501 North Lamar Blvd. 512-458-1792, titayasthaicuisine.com
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12 to 3:30 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Lunch specials, $8.50-$10.50. Appetizers and small plates, $4.95-$9.95. Entrees, $8.50-$14.95
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Titaya’s has a new look and a few new dishes, but the spirit at the popular Thai restaurant remains the same.