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Mam's Happy Thai Express offers a familiar format

A culinary journey from Bangkok to Berkeley culminated last month with a new Thai restaurant in downtown Ashland.

Mam’s Happy Thai Express stoked anticipation for several months with a “coming soon” sign on the storefront at 165 E. Main St. across from the Varsity Theatre. Prospective patrons can assume the restaurateurs’ plans simmered on the back burner when eateries were shuttered statewide to curb coronavirus cases. When Mam’s finally opened the first week in August, a line of Thai food enthusiasts extended across the dining room and out the front door.

My friend and I arrived just ahead of the dinnertime rush and claimed one of only four tables that Mam’s small footprint can accommodate under social distancing guidelines. Such limited seating in the space previously occupied by La Plancha comes with the suggestion to call for reservations. A significant number of customers, however, are choosing takeout, even as Mam’s constructs an online ordering platform on its website.

Mam’s extensive menu is posted online, and its depth and breadth almost suggests perusing in the comfort of one’s home. Numbering 60 items, not counting desserts and beverages, Mam’s menu features snacks, soups, salads, curries, noodles, stir-fry dishes, omelets, grilled meats and specialties prepared with seafood. Prices range from $6 for sticky rice with mango to $17 for wild salmon. The majority of dishes are priced at $12.

Because it was nightshade season, I was more inclined than usual toward the salad of eggplant, grilled and tossed with minced chicken and shrimp, chile paste, red onions and scallions in a cilantro-lime dressing ($14). My friend, who had agreed to dine family style with me, unfortunately is no eggplant fan, so I earmarked the dish for another time.

Also ambivalent to the green papaya salad ($12) with crushed peanuts and grilled shrimp, he suggested instead an appetizer of chicken satay with peanut sauce ($8). I convinced him that the deep-fried “happy wings,” boasting six pieces over the satay’s four skewers, would be a better choice for just a dollar more. Also, I hoped the wings’ “special happy Thai sauce” would be spicy.

Similarly, I craved the heat of classic “tom kha” soup ($8.50), which differs from spicy-sour “tom yum” soup for its inclusion of coconut milk. Each can be ordered with chicken or tofu; shrimp, calamari or fish costs $2 extra.

We already had decided on a rice dish for our main course, so I wanted the soup as a coconut milk stand-in for one of Mam’s six curries: green, yellow, panang and red with either bamboo, pumpkin or pineapple, priced at $12 each.

I somewhat reluctantly skipped over the section of noodles listing the gravy-laden “lad na” in addition to pad Thai ($12 apiece). But the section of “Mam’s specialties” centered on seafood, namely shrimp, scallops and wild salmon. The combination of shellfish, raisins and cashews in the pineapple fried rice piqued our interest, despite its high price of $17.

A lunchtime visit to Mam’s reduces the dish’s cost to $12, which includes the $2 additional charge for shrimp or calamari. Scallops are not offered with Mam’s lunch specials, whose price of $10 per dish, accompanied by a fried spring roll and salad with peanut dressing, is nevertheless an attractive offer. The lunch menu has 21 selections.

Mam’s format is familiar to diners who favor mainstream Thai establishments in any number of American cities. Operating restaurants in her native Bangkok and alongside family in California, the proprietor detoured to a vegan delicatessen in Berkeley, where she founded a vegan pop-up, dubbed “Yes, Mam!” Her husband’s desire to move to Ashland brings her brand of cuisine to a town with plenty of room for more Thai food.

Warm temperatures outside didn’t put a damper on my enthusiasm for the soup, which arrived scalding hot, maintaining its temperature for about 10 minutes on the table. A generous portion of tofu offered a clean counterpoint to the soup’s other seasonings of lemon grass, galangal and Thai lime leaf. Yet I found the broth studded with mushrooms, onion and tomato more sweet than spicy.

The same could be said of the “happy wings,” whose house-made sauce did furnish a mild tang. We expected the wings, listed under “snacks,” to come as a starter course and pointed out their absence when they didn’t arrive with our two other dishes. Kitchen staff, easily observed from the dining area, seemed to rush the wings’ preparation, which likely accounts for slightly undercooked meat and batter that could have crisped longer.

The pineapple rice provided the most diverse flavors and textures of the meal. Large chunks of pineapple matched the heft of sea scallops and tail-on shrimp. More substantial pieces of egg and cashews, on my palate, would have added to the overall effect. Curry powder incorporated with the rice imparted a subtle flavor.

I’d make a point next time to try some of Mam’s dishes that I haven’t noted on other Thai menus locally. The Thai shrimp omelet ($12) is an intriguing option to other main courses. And when the weather cools, I’d stop in for egg noodles with shrimp and chicken in a spicy-sour soup topped with crispy noodles for $16.

Mam’s Happy Thai Express is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Monday with lunch specials served until 3 p.m. The restaurant is closed Tuesday.

View menu pictures at mamshappythaiexpress.com. Call 541-625-2955 for takeout and reservations

Tom kha soup can be ordered with tofu or chicken.{ }Photo by Sara Lemon
"Happy wings" are deep-fried and coated in a house-made sauce at Mam's Happy Thai Express in Ashland.{ }Photo by Sara Lemon