BLOOMINGTON, Indiana - As soon as I entered Esan Thai, I knew the food must be good. A group of 12 men sat at a long table, the plates in front of them empty. Don’t know what they had ordered but it was all gone. And they seemed quite happy.
Esan Thai is easy to find. It is located across from the library on the corner of Kirkwood Avenue and Lincoln Street. Esan Thai also has a big plus – four free parking spaces on the east side of the restaurant and two spaces on the north side by the handicapped accessible door. No need to feed those blasted downtown parking meters or worry about running out of meter time during a leisurely meal.
Esan Thai isn’t a very big restaurant but it did a bustling business while I was there. I noticed several people coming in for carryout bags. I also saw diners of all ages, except children, during my dinner.
When I walked in, I was quickly seated at a comfortable table at the end of the room. As a solo diner, I didn’t feel relegated to an undesirable spot near the restroom, outside door or kitchen.
My server Christian quickly brought a menu, glass of ice water and decanter of ice water. That’s a nice touch. I drink a lot of water with a meal and it was handy to never have to catch the eye of a server for a refill.
Christian was also very good with menu recommendations and patiently answered all my questions and suggested my entrée – the most popular one in the restaurant – the Pad Thai. A generous serving, the tasty dish has thin rice noodles stir fired with eggs, bean sprouts, chives, tamarind sauce and shrimp. It is served with ground peanuts, lime, julienne carrots and cabbage.
Since Thai food is often spicy, the menu notes the “hot” level of each dish and warns that diners might not want to order the top “Thai hot” unless they are sure they really like hot. Other choices are mild, medium, medium-hot and hot. I got mild and it was tasty to me.
Christian recommended the Thailand beer Chang. I like to try international brews and sometimes end up with something undrinkable for my tastes. Chang was quite good – clean-tasting and very cold, just the way I like it.
For appetizer, I ordered the grilled shrimp, marinated with lemon grass, lime and soy sauce and grilled on skewers, served with cucumber salad and hot sauce. The cucumber salad was the best part of this dish.
Diners at another table got a container of sticky rice and were surprised at its lovely presentation in an unusual red, white and blue crocheted container. The neighborly diners kindly let me take a photo of their rice. I might order it sometimes just for the pleasant presentation.
Dessert was tapioca pudding with young coconut slices. We had tapioca quite often when I was a child but nothing like this. My childhood tapioca was creamy colored and cooled in the refrigerator before serving. Esan Thai’s tapioca was a brilliant green and it was warm. Very sweet, very good ending to a meal with little slivers of soft meaty coconut.
With dessert, I had a tall glass of Thailand iced tea, topped with half and half. I don’t like iced tea but it looked so good as another diner sipped his that I wanted to try. Very good. Very sweet. Nothing at all like the American iced tea I always ignore on a menu.
The décor of Esan Thai is simple. Tables and chairs, a few booth seats again a wall. Linen tablecloths top glass-topped tables. Thailand art works on the wall. Live orchids in planting pots on the tables. The bathroom was clean (I always check that and don’t want to tell you how many times I have been disappointed in classy establishments).
Opened October 2003 (Happy 10th Birthday!) in the beautiful Victorian Towers building, Esan Thai was the dream child of Don and Don and Luangthong “Aey” Schoonover. The two met when Don went to Thailand for a second time.
“My first trip was an around-the-world trip with my bicycle,” Don says. “I fell in love with Southeast Asia – the friendly, smiling people and the food and culture – and came back to the area again and again.”
The Schoonovers moved from Thailand shortly after the birth of their daughter Kara. They decided to settle within a day’s drive of the Chicago area where Don’s parents lived.
“I remembered Bloomington from many years of riding my bicycle in the Hilly Hundred Invitational Ride,” Don says. “I thought my wife Aey would like the town because of the diverse group of citizens and the beautiful surrounding pars.”
A few years after becoming Bloomington residents, Aey because interested in opening a Thai restaurant. Thus Esan Thai was born.
“My wife is from an area of Thailand called ‘Esan,’ primarily the norhteast side of Thailand,” Don says. “The name came from that connection and it sounded nice.”
The interesting menu at Esan Thai was created by Aey using her recipes. Aey is head chef and manager. “However, much credit should be given to our tow other Asian cooks,” Don says.
As for future plans, Don says he is awaiting approval of a submitted building permit to open up the south wall of the kitchen. “The opening will allow for a much-needed expansion of the kitchen area. At the same time we'll open up additional dining space with a Kirkwood entrance.”
The Schoonovers are also considering changing the menu to give diners a great choice of other Asia foods. “Also, there may be an addition of a coffee and light sandwich/bakery shop where the former Shanti Indiana restaurant used to be,” Don says.
New dining options are always welcome and a big reason why Bloomington has developed a good reputation for a wealth of excellent eating establishments.
For more information: Contact Esan Thai at (812) 333-8424, www.esanthairestaurant.com