The food. The prices. The service. Here’s the answer to Why Thai?

As a summer visitor to the area, I am always on the lookout for new cuisine. Kudos to the Bates College Cafeteria, but one must adventure into the community. Just rewards were found at Thai JarEarn Express, a small local establishment that should be teeming with business. The food was exceptionally fresh, beautifully presented, most delicious — and very affordable.

The restaurant sits at College and Sabattus streets in an unassuming building that once housed a corner grocery and soda fountain. Bought by the Saengwong family, the restaurant opened in 2006. Those in the know have been dining in or picking up take-out ever since. (Delivery and catering options are available.)

Thai food can be fragrant, using common spices such as chili, basil, lemon grass, kafir lime leaves and coconut milk. All dishes can be made to individual taste: mild, medium and spicy. The best restaurants take care to employ the freshest ingredients and ensure that each dish is a mastery of beautiful colors carefully arranged. Like at Thai JarEarn Express.

Mrs. Saengwong was a schoolteacher in Thailand, and one of her roles was to cook lunch for the children in class. Her interest in food began long before, when, at age 4, her mother began to teach her to cook. Her stepdaughter, Nongnuch Makaram, also began learning at an early age, by carefully watching. Mr. Saengwong, who was a school principal in Thailand, their daughter Supannee and other family members round out the team.

Between two visits with 10 friends and colleagues, we managed to taste a wide variety of dishes. Appetizers were shared, including spring rolls, dumplings, Golden Bags (little fried “purses” filled with potato, onion and green peas), scallion pancakes and tod mun (minced spices, shrimp and chicken cakes served with a ground peanut and cucumber sauce). All were accompanied by a variety of dipping sauces, complimenting each dish. One of specialties is homemade kimchi, a spicy pickled napa cabbage — a crunchy sweet-hot treat that leaves you begging for more.

Beautiful steaming bowls of broth soups are available, with a variety of filling ingredients, from the most well-known, such as tom yum (Thai hot and sour) and tom kah (a coconut milk and spice base with additions of your choice) to udong noodle soups and suki yaki. The salads are plentiful and diverse, large enough for an entrée. Our favorites were the satisfying Nam Sad (chicken, chili, peanut and onion and lime) and the scrumptious Laab (ground meat with onion, cilantro and hot spicy herbs). Both are served on a nest of lettuce.

On to the entrees! Sushi lovers rejoice: It’s available by the piece or in rolls. And the chef’s classics offer a wide variety of options. There are also specials, which encompass some well-known Asian dishes with a Thai twist; Mrs. Saengwong enjoys cooking foods from other cultures. One friend had yellow curry with shrimp; it was by far the best I’d ever tasted! Everyone’s favorite pad Thai was one of many noodle dishes on the menu and there are many vegetarian choices as well.

We were greeted with a smile and made to feel welcome, and the service was really perfect. The nearby liquor store provides beer and wine that is happily opened and served. Should you have room, spring for the fried ice cream — but be prepared to be rolled out the door.

When we walked first in, we almost balked — is this where we were going to eat? You won’t be impressed with the décor, but the service and food will certainly win you over. And it didn’t break the bank; most entrees are around $9 and worth every penny.

I won’t be around for another year, and hope that in my absence more folks will enjoy Thai JarEarn Express. This visitor found a great culinary home in your local community.

Editor’s note: Kim Konikow is on the faculty of Lewiston/Auburn’s best-kept summer secret, the Bates Dance Festival. She visits annually from her home in southern Utah, where she is an arts consultant, always in search of interesting food adventures.

What: Thai JarEarn Express

Where: 65 College St., Lewiston

Contact: 786-3653 and http://www.thaijarearnexpress.com/

Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m.-9 p.m.

Why: Good Thai with some delicious twists, at good prices.  


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