For more than 20 years, customers have driven from near and far to eat at one of Madison’s most authentic Thai restaurants, Sa-Bai Thong. With locations on Odana Road and University Avenue, owner Arom Wichitchu takes pride in featuring creative monthly specials so popular that hundreds of customers come back to eat two or three times a week before the special changes.
Sa-Bai Thong on University Avenue was launched in the late 1990s, while the Odana location opened in 2001. Arom’s sister, Taratip Buchli, manages the University Avenue location and says both restaurants are equally popular for dine-in, carryout, and delivery. She enjoys seeing regulars who visit as many as three or four times a week. Taratip attributes the repeat business to high-quality food, good portions, and fair prices. “We pay very special attention to the quality of food we are purchasing and preparing. We only pick the best, so the dishes are consistently good.”
￼Monthly specials often feature traditional Thai spices and dishes with an American twist, such as Honey Duck: a boneless duck with honey cranberry sauce, tomatoes, onions, grapes, shallots, and red pepper served with brown rice and a side of salad. Other dishes feature the restaurant’s famous Peanut Sauce, such as Peanut Sauce Noodle: rice noodles with sautéed chicken and shrimp, green onion, and carrots served on a bed of shredded lettuce and topped with crispy wonton noodle.
Arom says the allure of monthly specials is that they never make it onto the regular menu. So when a customer tries a monthly dish and likes it, he or she might return a dozen more times that month to get his or her fill before the special changes. “It’s fun to see the same people come back several days in a row because they like that month’s special so much,” Arom says. “It tells us we must be doing something right.”
Arom named his restaurant Sa-Bai Thong because the words mean golden banner in Thai. While the name may seem foreign, it is certainly not unfamiliar to the close-knit Madison community. Over the years, the restaurant has been highly praised by both people who live in Thailand and Thai people who visit Madison. Arom says its reputation has expanded throughout Wisconsin, and customers from Milwaukee or Janesville often come to visit. “And they always return,” he says.
While most Americans may equate Thai food with simply “Pad Thai,” Thai cuisine is unique with rare flavors not found in other cultures. Arom says the distinct taste is light and fresh, often seasoned with chili, spices, and herbs. The key is to make sure main ingredients and spices are delicately balanced to offset each other so one does not overpower the other. “Our Thai food is very balanced,” says Taratip. “It’s never just sweet or spicy. We try to make it just right for every customer.”
￼Many first-time customers order Pad Thai, which was made popular during World War II and has since become one of Thailand’s national dishes. Known in the United States as a fast, simple, and nutritious dish, the chefs at Sa-Bai Thong take Pad Thai to the next level, turning what can be a boring entrée into a big bowl of heaven with small rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, green onion, shredded cabbage, radish, ground peanut, egg, and yellow tofu. Customers have their choice of adding chicken, pork, beef, tofu, or shrimp.
￼At Sa-Bai Thong, even the curry dishes are unique. “Curry is everywhere,” Taratip says. “So we know ours can’t be the same. We try to make our curry dishes different and delicious.”
One of Sa-Bai Thong’s most popular curry dishes is the Jungle Curry, featuring red curry with tofu, basil, broccoli, carrots, baby corn, bamboo shoots, red pepper, rhizome, straw mushrooms, and green beans with purple eggplant or shrimp. Another is Mus-Mun, with a dazzling splash of curry sauce, cinnamon, onions, coriander, anise, cumin, potatoes, apples, and peanuts. It’s served with a choice of chicken, pork, beef, tofu, mixed veggie, or shrimp.
The evidence of Sa-Bai Thong’s continual successes can be measured by numerous awards and recognitions throughout 20 years of operation, including dozens of “Best of Madison” titles for favorite Thai food.
“We are thankful for all of the customers that come from Madison and all over the state,” Arom says. “We try to make an enjoyable experience for them. They support us all year and keep coming back. Without them, we wouldn’t still be here.”
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.