Mama Jude’s Thai Kitchen really does know best
By Paula Johnson
Photo: Pad Sei Ew at Mama Jude’s Thai Kitchen
Thai cuisine is experiencing a wave in popularity in the U.S., with two 2011 James Beard Best Chef Awards going to Thai restaurants. Until the 1960s, Thai was relatively unknown here, and didn’t really explode on the scene until the early 2000s, thanks to the Thai government’s “Kitchen of the World” campaign, a concerted effort to train chefs and promote Thai food internationally. And it seems to have worked: In a 2011 CNN poll of the world’s most delicious foods, not only are four Thai dishes in the ranking, Thai massaman curry tops the entire list.
Mama Jude’s Thai Kitchen in Fairborn is riding that wave. Mama Jude’s American dream story began in rural Thailand at age 11, where she learned to prepare food as a domestic servant. Marrying a U.S. airman landed her in Fairborn, where she worked as a cook at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Having her own place to serve the food of her native land was always her goal, and she achieved it when Mama Jude’s Thai Kitchen opened in February of 2013.
Located in a strip mall on Fairborn’s main drag, we found the restaurant easily. It’s brightly lit and very informal, with a large takeout counter spanning the length of the space. Joining PIP (Palate In Progress) and me on this excursion was my lithe and lovely Thai friend, Chrissie. We were looking forward to a meal with strong aromatic components – that intricate balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy which are the cuisine’s hallmarks.
We began by placing an order for drinks and appetizers. Mama Jude’s doesn’t serve alcohol, but does offer Thai iced tea and coffee, as well as soft drinks. As we consulted our server about entrée items, Mama Jude, who could be seen busily prepping orders in the kitchen behind the counter, sent us a complementary order of Thai egg rolls to sample. Crispy, cigar-shaped and filled with tasty veggies and a dipping sauce, our appetites were pleasantly stimulated and ready for the arrival of our own choices. PIP tried crab rangoon ($4.50) and Chrissie and I chose fresh rolls with shrimp ($6.50) and chicken satay ($6.50). All were well done, but the fresh rolls were really a stand out – mint, cilantro and Thai basil, along with shredded vegetables and tender shrimp nestled in semi-translucent wrappers. They were refreshing and light, with two dipping sauce condiments – a great starter for the heavier spicier foods to follow.
Mama Jude’s offers a selection of soups and salads, all entrée-sized, which left me in a quandary. I wanted to try my favorite Tom Yum soup, a fragrant lemongrass broth redolent with ginger and cilantro, but I also wanted to sample a noodle dish. Unable to resist, I went for the shrimp version at $10.95 (also offered with chicken or tofu at $7.95), which featured cherry tomatoes and mushrooms. Spicy and warming, it’s not called Tom YUM soup by accident.
Our server was very helpful with explanations and suggestions, and gave the impression he really was excited about sharing his knowledge of the restaurant’s offerings. The menu features rice and noodle dishes, curries, stir fry and seafood specialty entrées. Chrissie was decisive, with ginger chicken ($8.95) as her choice, requesting it with extra ginger. It came as she specified and was delicious. I selected Pad Sei Ew, described as rice noodles stir-fried with garlic oil, egg, broccoli, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and soy. The dish arrived with a delicious green vegetable (not standard American broccoli) with both slivered stalks and leaves. Our server identified it as Chinese broccoli, and pointed out Mama Jude uses whatever authentic available vegetables she can find in all her cooking. I had ordered my noodles spicy, number 8 on a 10-point scale, and they were. For the really brave, there is also a “to infinity and beyond” spice option.
PIP was experiencing an entrée quandary of a different sort. He is one of the approximately 10 percent of the population who possess a genetic variant known as “single nucleotide polymorphism.” To the layman, this is the condition that means he reacts to the taste of cilantro with waaaaaay more than simple dislike. To this portion of the population, cilantro is right up there with spoiled meat in terms of its culinary appeal. As cilantro is nearly ubiquitous in Thai cooking, dining can be tricky (although Mama Jude’s menu states they are happy to customize dishes for diners with allergies and dietary restrictions). Plalad Prik – whole deep-fried tilapia ($10) – turned out to be a stellar selection. Flaky and delicious, it arrived on a platter with a condiment of onions, bell pepper and basil drizzled with a lemon grass and garlic oil sauce. A dramatic presentation and really well done!
Mama knows best
Dessert options ($6.50) included fried banana with ice cream, Thai custard and mango with sticky rice. As we were delving into our fried banana, Mama Jude began circulating through the dining room to greet each table. Tiny and smiling in her chef’s apron, she was very much a Mama – the kind of woman who looks like she wants to hug you and pinch your cheek. She knew I had ordered the entrée soup to try, planning to take the rest home. “How about some rice with that?” she offered. I attempted to refuse, but Mama looked crestfallen. She offered again, brightening as I agreed. “It will make a whole meal for you tomorrow!” How could I refuse Mama?
It’s hard to go wrong with a place that’s affordable (our bill came to $59.82, plus tip), uses fresh authentic ingredients, has good service and has a Facebook page featuring appetizing photos and descriptions updated daily, encouraging you to stop in and “Show Mama some love!” Go on. Go see Mama. You’ll be glad you did.
Mama Jude’s is located at 1178 Kauffman Ave. in Fairborn. For more information, please call 937.318.8425 or visit mamajudesthaikitchen.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Paula Johnson at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.