Fed Man 55: Titaya's Thai Cuisine (36)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 36: Titaya’s Thai Cuisine
5501 N. Lamar Blvd., Suite C101. 512-458-1792, no website.
Hours: 11am-2:30pm and 5-10pm Tue-Fri; 12-3:30pm and 5-10pm Sat-Sun. Closed Mon.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.08.12
2014 UPDATE: After closing for renovations in 2013, Titaya's has reopened.
What is it about Thai food that fires up the loyalists? Some rally behind Madam Mam’s, others follow Thai Fresh and some misguided souls lobby for the dreadful Thai Kitchen. It’s a mix of family and food, I think. Go often enough and their stories resonate the same as their pad thai and tom-yum. For me, kitchen and kinship unite gracefully at Titaya’s, a bright haven of yellow, red and blue on a drab stretch of North Lamar where Titaya Timrerk paints familiar Thai classics with elevated strokes. Measure the loyalty factor by joining the long waiting list at 1 o’clock on a Sunday.
Titaya’s is a low-profile place with nothing you’d call decor. The sparks are left for the table, in crystals of rock candy for hot tea and the kinetic orange and cream cascade of Thai iced tea. Tom-kha soup brings the tannic fervor of coconut sharpened with lemongrass and lime juice and galangal, a stringy rhizome like ginger’s manic cousin. Spend $9 and you get that soup’s spectacle in a firepot, a beat-up aluminum bowl with a cone in the center like a Bundt pan, a volcanic vent through which spires of flame leap for show and a steady simmer, a simmer whose cauldronous gargles keep the soup aerated and alive. Mushrooms glide across the milky lagoon, broken by the coral-colored Rorshach canvases of firm, fresh shrimp tails.
Less theatrical but still artful is a cold som tum salad ($7.95), a crisp tangle of shredded papaya and crushed peanuts that puts the fruit’s natural sweetness and the acidity of lime juice and tomato in bright relief on the same dish, with a dash of fish sauce for a twangy third element.
A utilitarian Thai dish of pad kra prao ($8.95) stirs together onion, bell pepper and mushroom in a basic salty brown sauce with accent notes of grassy basil and sharp Thai chiles. It hits the midpoint at Titaya’s, where most dishes are $9 or less and come with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu or shrimp. The staples are here — pad thai and pad see eiw noodles, gang dang curry, meaty larb salads — but Titaya’s also rises to elegant forms like a duck curry ($14.95), bringing together the deep flinty swerve of red curry with sliced duck still rosy in the center even as it shares a bubbling clay pot with tomato and pineapple.
Titaya’s is my favorite spot for traditional Thai. Her big brother Ek Timrerk, meanwhile, is painting Thai with a different brush altogether in far North Austin. But that’s a story for a spot farther along the Fed Man 55.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants