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Sawadee Restaurant 

Thai cooking from the wife (and namesake) of Panita

There are two types of diners: Those who don’t mind brash service, long waits or odd locales as long as the food is good, and those who prefer a more polished dining experience to feel at ease. If you find yourself in the former group and also happen to love Thai cuisine, you’ve most likely braved the odd yet delicious Panita Thai Kitchen in Virginia-Highland. However, Panita isn’t as odd as you may think.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself standing in the doorway at Sawadee Restaurant (4920 Roswell Road, 404-303-1668) waiting for someone — anyone — to emerge from the dark end of the dining room. But the wait is a nice chance to gawk at the faded opulence of this quirky spot tucked away in the corner of the Fountain Oaks Shopping Center. Cindy, the owner/cook/server will inevitably burst out of the kitchen with a remarkably large presence for such a tiny lady. Cindy likes to chat and has the pleasant habit of lingering near your table as you eat. It was during one of these solo meals with my inadvertent dining companion that I discovered her surprising back-story. Cindy’s Thai name is Panita — the actual Panita after which her husband named his restaurant.

Cindy cooks every single dish from the massive menu, which reads like an encyclopedia of Thai food. As expected, this results in a longer mealtime. But frustrations quickly disappear with the chopping and sizzling sounds that emanate from the kitchen. Laab nuur (a salad of “ground” and seared chicken or beef, soaked in a mixture of lime juice, lime leaves, cilantro, lemongrass, chili peppers, onions and scallions) is the cleanest-tasting version I’ve had in years. The chicken is juicy. The herbs' flavors are amplified: Cindy snipped them from her husband’s garden the day before. The finish buzzes with spice instantly balanced by the coolness of the chilled cabbage wrappers.

Thick slices of sweet Thai sausage (yam guang chiang) are treated similarly to the laab, but the sauce is dark and prepared with fish sauce and tamarind. Lettuce cups are used in place of cabbage to eat the smoky and sticky sausage taco-style.

Curries are silky, complex and freshly made. Gang ped nurr (a spicy green curry thickened with coconut milk) burns so good, but the beef can be a little on the tough side — order it with chicken or shrimp instead. The abundance of more extravagant ingredients such as frog legs and duck is tempting, but it would seem that the low turnover yields dry duck and with an unpleasantly musky aftertaste no soup or curry can mask. The pad Thai is a departure from the sticky sweet renditions you find elsewhere. Plump and perfectly cooked shrimp tangle with noodles bathed in a subtly sweet brown sauce infused with tamarind and plenty of heat.

While being one of the only occupied tables in a dining room has its appeal, I can imagine the waits would be unbearable with more than a handful of customers. So, take a cue from the regulars who greet Cindy with affection before hurrying to their car with a bagful of her cooking. Just don’t miss out on at least one meal inside the restaurant so you can fully experience Sawadee’s quirky yet ultimately endearing hospitality.

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