- Enrique Limón
At this point in my dining career, it's gotten pretty difficult to mess up a curry of any description. There's something magical in that blend of spices and coconut milk that gets me regardless of the talent that went into its creation. I love how the subtle, smoky heat tends to perfume my olfactory region long after I've finished, and I love how a scoop of steamed rice soaks up all the sauce that I can't get with my fork or chopsticks. That said, I was expecting to enjoy Mali Thai (238 S. Main, 801-364-0164) simply on principle. As it turns out, they've got plenty of other interesting features to offer those in the central downtown area—and they're not afraid to singe your mouth with a liberal use of Thai chiles.
Considering Gallivan Plaza is also home to some of Salt Lake's favorite upscale restaurants, I'm always excited to see spirited upstarts throw their hat in the ring. The area sees some of downtown's most concentrated foot traffic, and its proximity to the business and financial district means you've got lots of hungry professionals to feed. Many restaurants have risen and fallen in this area (Mali's digs used to house Pier 49 Pizza and later the short-lived Este Deli), but if a place plays its cards right and goes after a solid group of business lunch regulars, it can go pretty far.
After a few trips, it's clear Mali Thai has the same idea in mind. It opens right before lunch and closes at 6 p.m., and dedicates all of their resources to the working stiffs hankering for a hearty bowl of massaman curry. The restaurant has been open for just more than two months, and their strategy seems to be working. I've visited a few times during the lunch rush and it received a fair share of traffic. We're not talking lines out the door or anything, but famished office workers and curious passersby have definitely taken an interest (or, at the very least, been smacked in the face by the in-house inflatable man that guards the eatery's entrance).
The other draw the establishment has going for it is its rotating menu. Mainstays like yellow curry or Thai basil chicken are typically available all week, but they also cycle in a few other dishes that are only available certain days. The digital menu screen on the exterior window isn't always up to date, so I'd suggest heading inside and seeing what they actually have at the counter. I wouldn't shy away from asking the front of house for their input on the menu, either. The team loves to talk about their food, and they're always quick to provide caution if you're sniffing around a dish that might bite back.
It's the ready-made menu that makes Mali Thai's fast-casual approach work. Whether you're after a long lunch away from the rat race or popping in for a quick takeout order to eat in the office, your food is ready before you cash out. I have caught wind of diners being critical of the restaurant's fondness for Styrofoam and plastic—whether you dine in or leave, your meal comes served in a hinged foam container—and that criticism is definitely valid. I just happen to be of the opinion that if the foam containers are rubbing you the wrong way, you should start lobbying to make compostable serving accoutrements cheaper for new, locally based restaurants and cut these guys some slack.
In order to get the most out of your visit, the two item combo ($9.95) is the way to go. This lets you pick any two menu items and combine them with a huge helping of rice—steamed or fried—and an eggroll. It's hard to narrow down their selection to just two, but there are a few tricks to it. One of my selections has to be curry—their yellow and massaman varieties are both solid. Once I've got the curry portion of my meal figured out, I like to see what kind of fire they're playing with. You can tell if a Thai place is doing things right by how much their spicy dishes punish you, and Mali packs some serious heat. The Thai basil chicken and red curry with bamboo shoots are fireballs that expertly capture the heat and flavor of their spicy Thai chiles. The fire of the spicy dishes complements any of the more tame options, jacking up the flavors of even the mild-mannered yellow curry.
As Mali Thai is new, it's still in the midst of figuring out its identity and ironing out its overall presentation. Management has plans to open a bit earlier for coffee or Thai tea to accommodate the breakfast crowd, and I wouldn't be surprised if the team has more tricks up their sleeve. If they can stick to their guns, keep making really good food really fast and work on their community outreach, I'd love to see this little place succeed.