Tucked away in an unassuming strip center, Thai Marlai in Cornelius offers exotic cuisine in a simple setting. Owner and manager Toi Rogers treats diners like family, even if it's your first time there. Rogers, a native of Thailand, is a former owner of Charlotte's Thai Orchid and the defunct Thai Cuisine. The restaurant offers many tasty Thai classics, such as the popular pad thai (shrimp or chicken, $11.95; vegetarian, $10.95), along with specialty dishes for those interested in breaking out and sampling this varied and versatile cuisine. Many of Thai Marlai's specialties include duck. Kang-Ped-Yang ($15.95), roasted duck in a mild red curry and coconut cream, comes with bamboo shoots, onions, tomatoes, chili and sweet basil leaves. This standout dish, attractively presented in a blue and white ceramic tureen, is slightly sweet and satisfying with big pieces of delicious duck swimming in the silky sauce. A choice of white or brown rice is offered. Another recommended item is chicken thai marlai ($16.95), which is crispy egg noodles cushioning a stir-fry of sauteed chicken, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, cashew nuts and green onions with a housemade chili paste. There are several stir-fry offerings to choose from and the heat on these, as with all Thai Marlai's dishes, can be customized from one star (mild) to three stars (Thai native). Pad-Preow-Whan ($12.95 with chicken) consists of your choice of protein (including tofu) served with onions, cucumber, bell pepper, pineapple and tomatoes in a well-balanced sweet and sour sauce that's not overly sticky-sweet. The chicken is tender and moist, perfect for soaking in the delicate flavors. Seafood is also a big draw here, especially shrimp. Koong-Lard-Prig-Kang ($18.95) is a medium-spicy dish of sauteed jumbo shrimp with red curry coconut sauce and crispy rice noodles. Pla Jian (market price) is a fried whole fish topped with shrimp, onions, mushrooms, ginger and chili in a bean sauce. There are four other market-price fish dishes served with different fresh toppings and sauces. Curry dishes are also favorites, and Thai Marlai offers four varieties: green, red, mussamun and panang. These are available with your choice of shrimp, chicken, beef, scallops, squid, combination seafood and tofu. The green curry can be spicy, but is sweeter than the red curry. It's served with eggplant, bamboo shoots, green beans, chili and sweet basil leaves. Panang curry paste, typically milder than other Thai curries, is stirred into a thick coconut cream and topped with kaffir lime leaves. The massamun variety is also mild and has a hearty and earthy flavor from roasted peanuts or cashews. To start, appetizers include poh pead tod ($5.95), which is lightly fried spring rolls served with a spicy-sweet sauce. Koong ka bok ($6.95) is another good choice. This is jumbo shrimp wrapped in a spring roll shell with an accompanying sweet plum sauce. Other options include to-fu tod ($6.95), deep-fried bean curd with ground peanuts in a cucumber chili sauce, and finally me krob Thai Marlai ($8.95), crispy rice noodles with sauteed chicken and water chestnuts served with crisp lettuce for wrapping. You could also begin with soup or salad, and Thai Marlai has many to choose from. Yum nuer ($10.95) is juicy charbroiled beef with onions, tomatoes, lettuce, chili, mint leaf and lime dressing. Yum-Pla-Muk ($11.95) is a squid salad with red onions and lemongrass and yum ped yang ($11.95) is a roasted duck salad with mixed vegetables and crispy rice noodles. Other options include tom yum, a slightly sour and spicy soup with herbs and mushrooms, as well as tom kha, a spicy coconut cream soup with galangal, lemongrass and mushrooms. Soup prices for a bowl range from $3.95 with vegetables to $5.75 for a seafood combination.Thai Marlai has many dedicated regular customers who treat the place like a neighborhood hangout, including Wes Choplin, chef and co-owner of neighboring Choplin's Restaurant. This tasty hidden gem is well worth seeking out.
Want to go?
What: Thai Marlai
Where: 19700 One Norman Blvd. Cornelius, NC
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.; 5 p.m.- 9:30 p.m.; Fri. 11:30 a.m. -2:30 p.m.; 5 p.m.- 10:30 p.m.; Sat. 5 p.m- 10:30 p.m.
Info: 704-892-7191; www.thaimarlai.com