Go To Surin West, Young Man!

by Samantha Bonnie

Southside’s Thai restaurant Surin West is the place to go for great food when no one can agree on what to eat. Sometimes I end up there by myself or with one other friend, but most often I’m there with a group of people who can agree on only one thing — they want something good.

The scenario usually goes something like this: friends who love the spicy coconut soup finally suggest Surin West, ending the argument abruptly. Sushi friends always want sushi and they agree. Chicken friends never order anything except chicken masaman and they wonder why they didn’t think of Surin first. Martini friends will eat anything and usually just pick off everyone else’s, so they agree. Five-points-area friends can walk and they certainly agree.

If you absolutely have to use a motor vehicle, there is parking behind Raymond’s Market, but be careful about getting the right lot. It looks like they have the next lot too but as soon as you’re out of the car and cutting around the corner, the invisible attendant suddenly appears, demanding four bucks. You innocently aver you’re going to Surin and he kindly explains you’re in the wrong lot. That happened to me only once.

What has happened to me many times are Surin’s shrimp basil rolls. I am a vegetarian (though I do eat fish sometimes), and the chefs will make almost anything on the menu vegetarian. I can try something new every time I go, but I almost always start with basil rolls. I request them without pork, which is easily done because they use a strip of the meat and not the ground stuff.

Tonight I decided to be different and my companion and I started with crab angels. This delicately fried appetizer has a lot of cream cheese but the crab is not overpowered at all. Our server, Suman, suggested we also try some sushi to start. The super crunch roll is very good and is made with tempura, masago, that yummy Japanese barbeque-type sauce, and smoked salmon.

I always drink water (boring — I know) but my friend tried a Tahi beer, Singha, which he described as light and dry for a malt.

Neither of us ordered the famous spicy coconut milk, shrimp and mushroom soup. We were wondering how this could have happened when our entrees arrived and we were properly distracted from that oversight. The timing of the meal was perfect: not too fast and not too slow. The service has always been good here, which is so important for lunch gatherings. Even when I have gone with six or seven people, we always get out in less than an hour. Tonight we spent almost two hours enjoying our meal, but everything came just when it should have.

My tofu with mixed vegetables over steamed rice was phenomenal. Surin’s tofu is consistently good. They lightly deep-fry it and cut it into huge pieces. Their vegetables come in fresh everyday and include the zucchini, cabbage, baby corn, broccoli, carrots and green beans in my entrée. The sauce is a delicate, medium-light garlic sauce that really matured overnight in my refrigerator — great for leftovers.

The chicken masaman is not printed on the dinner menu, only on the lunch menu, but my friend was able to order it for dinner. Very few lunch items are not on the dinner menu, but most of them can be requested at night. This dish is made with cashews and a creamy sauce and is served with steamed rice. Some of my associates never get anything else there.

The owner, Surin Techarukpong, started with a restaurant in Atlanta. He and his wife often visited Birmingham and decided to have a location here. Surin West opened in its current location in the early 1990s and has since expanded to include the two spaces on either side of the original, already large room. His vision of Thai-trained master chefs and great service is still strong. General manager, Sushil Thapa, is from Katmandu, Nepal and has been keeping things running smoothly at this high-volume location for five years.

At Surin West, all the desserts are made in-house from recipes chosen by Surin’s wife, Lori Livingston. I usually get the berry crumble. It’s one of my favorite things to eat, period. Tonight we decided to share the crème brulee and a ginger-lime dessert bar. Wow. Words cannot describe the delight, my readers. I enjoyed coffee with mine but my friend capped it all off with one of Surin’s signature beverages, the sour apple martini. He commented the fruity tartness was a perfect complement to the sweetness of the desserts. Martinis at Surin are events unto themselves and include traditional and new choices.

I always enjoy the music and atmosphere at Surin. According to GM Sushil, "a lot of people bring their first dates here and then have their wedding parties here too." He keeps together the complex organization of large parties and a large staff, maintaining the highest standards and remembering the details that keep us coming back.

Surin West is on 10th Avenue South between 19th and 20th Streets. They are open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, closing for a couple of hours in between. Reach them at 324-1928.