If you’re looking to spend a teary 15 minutes humming Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You,” while being horrified at the behavior of some of your fellow human beings, then by all means google the words “Thai elephants.” If you’re looking to spend a stunned 15 minutes humming Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory‘s “Pure Imagination” while simultaneously starring at the opulent teak furniture and sushi concoctions straight out of Liberace’s dining room, then head on over to Thai Elephants Restaurant on Folly Road.
The decor is lavish. Everywhere you look, ornately-carved teak tables and chairs depict scenes of Thai life, resplendent with majestic elephants. Every seat in the house is fit for the King of Siam. Get comfortable, because not only is there a giant, elaborate menu, there are two of them: Thai and sushi. Charleston’s cream-cheese, deep fried, extra sauce-loving sushi-philes may want to sit themselves down.
Willy Wonka once noted, “Invention, my dear friends, is 93 percent perspiration, 6 percent electricity, 4 percent evaporation, and 2 percent butterscotch ripple,” a declaration that has seemingly been followed by Thai Elephant’s sushi chef.
Beef tataki? Check.
Roast duck? Check.
Fried oysters, cilantro, mangoes, aioli, or even … gold flakes?
Surely by now you realize that’s a rhetorical question.
With a menu boasting two different variations of the ubiquitous California roll, we just had to try them out. The Original California Roll 1974 ($10) spoke of “snow crab, avocado, spinach, tomago, Kewpie mayo, and masago.” Our roll contained tomago, asparagus, mayo, and a generous portion of fresh meat. It had a light, bright flavor dominated by the sweet crab and cooked egg, but nicely offset by the salty tomago. Although we now realize it must not have been an authentic mouthful of 1974, the asparagus provided some welcome crunch and we didn’t miss the spinach or avocado. The California Roll 1983 ($7), defined as “crab, avocado and cucumber, dressed with masago,” was perfectly enjoyable in every way and, yes, exactly what you would expect (and perhaps even long for?) in a California roll, but let’s just call a kamaboko a kamaboko. A decapod crustacean covered with a thick exoskeleton and in possession of a single pair of claws = crab. A processed seafood made of pulverized white fish meat fashioned into an approximation of the above = crab stick. That’s what you’ll find in the 1983. We suggest this clarification on behalf of poor, lowly crab stick who never seemed more the imposter than when eaten in conjunction with rolls containing generous portions of actual crab.
The menu sports over 35 maki roll combinations with cream cheese regularly making an appearance. The Rebel Yell ($14) is an exception. Made with tempura shrimp, spicy tuna, cucumbers, crab and topped with seared salmon, jalapeño slices, and “super spicy volcano sauce,” it did not disappoint. The fresh, yet fiery crispness of the jalapeño nicely offset the warm salmon and meaty shrimp. As the flavors settle, a warm burn spreads across your palate as the peppers kick in. Good stuff.
Yes, we were mightily tempted by the siren song of the Golden Dragon Roll ($14). Adorned in yellow soy paper, the roll features tempura shrimp, crab, cream cheese, mangoes, and gold flakes. GOLD. FLAKES. Like a time machine back to the dot.com boom, we wanted to embrace the wanton, frivolous excess, but feared the flavors would veer far too sweet for our tastes.
Enter the Escolar Crunch Roll ($13). Cheery in a fetching yellow soy paper, it offered no flavor balance to the doughy combination of tempura shrimp, sushi rice, avocado, and tempura flakes. While the thinly sliced, seared escolar is a nice idea, nothing could withstand the syrupy might of the citrus ponzu dressing.
The menu doesn’t stop at sushi. Squid salad ($8), two types of tataki ($13), and even kuraje (jellyfish) nigiri ($7) or sashimi ($10) make an appearance. It would take weeks to try it all. But don’t load up on Charleston Rolls (shrimp, cucumber, romaine lettuce, speciality aioli, $8) just yet, as the Thai menu is equally robust.
The chicken satay ($8.95) was by-the-book. Lightly imbued with lime and coriander notes, thin portions of chicken breast meat were accompanied by a bright vinaigrette and sweet peanut sauce. The shrimp pad thai ($12.95 plus an additional $2 for shrimp) was equally traditional. Rice noodles were mixed with egg, bean sprouts, green beans, and tofu and then topped with chopped peanuts. Portion size was modest and the heat scale was appropriate for grandpa’s sensitive stomach. If you want even a little zing, go ahead and get it Thai hot.
We hadn’t quite figured that out yet when we ordered the Drunken Noodles ($12.95) with chicken. Also known as pad kee mao, the same noodles from the pad thai were served with red and green bell peppers, onion slices, and fresh Thai basil. The chicken was moist and flavorful. Known for its fiery kick, our plate — ordered “hot” thinking hot would be, well, “Thai hot” — was mild and sweet-tempered. After adding some additional chili sauce, however, things came together and the holy trinity of sweet, sour, and spicy was once again restored to balance.
However, our green curry with beef ($12.95) — Thai hot — was right on point. The very coco-nutty curry base comes loaded with red and green bell pepper slices, meaty chunks of eggplant, Thai basil, and green peas. Once again, the portion was modest, but thanks to the fiery kick and tender eggplant, the curry was by far our favorite pick off the Thai menu.
With friendly, attentive service and museum-worthy decor, Thai Elephants has bitten off a lot, but seems to be up to the chew. Time will tell if the uber-creative, cream cheese-resplendent rolls and mild-mannered Thai menu will keep James Islanders coming, or if perhaps the menu will continue to refine in both scope and flavor as things move forward.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.