“Chill and enjoy yourself.” That’s what Mai Pen Rai means in the Thai language, according to our friendly waiter at the local Thai restaurant in Santurce.
The name suits this small and unassuming restaurant on Calle Canals, just a few blocks from La Placita, a popular market plaza surrounded by local restaurants and cafes.
The venue is tastefully decorated with colorful paper umbrellas of orange, purple, yellow and red, with colorful throw pillows in similar colors dotting the benches on one wall.
Featuring authentic Thai cuisine—not Americanized or Puerto Ricanized— Mai Pen Rai satisfies the craving for perennial go-to favorites such as Pad Thai, stir fried rice noodles with lime juice, onions and soy, with crushed peanuts and bean sprouts, Khao Soi, coconut curry chicken soup with rice noodles, and Drunken Noodles, wide chow fun noodles stir fried with broccoli, eggs, onions, Thai basil and tomato in a Thai chili garlic soy sauce.
My dining partner and I ordered a chicken satay to share, along with our two main plates, the Pad Seyu noodles and the Mai Pen Rai Fried Rice.
The chicken satay, $8, marinated in mild yellow curry and coconut milk, was a little bland for my taste. I would have appreciated more flavor, but the peanut sauce was perfect for dipping. The chicken satay also went well with the usual side salad of cucumber, onions and rice vinegar. The cucumbers were crisp, and the salad was light and refreshing.
My Pad Seyu, $15, featured chow fun noodles stir fried with broccoli, eggs and onions. Diners can choose from chicken, beef, barbecue pork, vegetables and fresh or fried tofu, as well as shrimp for an extra $2. I chose fried tofu. The dish was just as I like it, mild and flavorful, and they did not skimp on the broccoli or tofu.
My dining partner chose the Mai Pen Rai Fried Rice, $14, featuring jasmine rice stir fried with bean sprouts, Thai basil, onions and tomatoes, served with two over-easy eggs on top. This dish was also delicious, but we learned that the food at Mai Pen Rai isn’t just authentic in terms of the ingredients used and preparation, but it is also authentic in terms of the spiciness.
Diners can choose the level of spiciness from 1, the mildest, to 5, which is most likely scorching hot. Our amiable and attentive waiter recommended a level 2, as medium, but it was quite spicy, even for those who may enjoy their food quite picante. My dining partner had to politely ask for extra white rice to dilute some of the spiciness.
“When I was first here, I ordered Drunken Noodles at level 3. I really liked it, but it was too spicy for me, so I lowered it to level 2,” our waiter said. “You get the kick, but the spiciness doesn’t overpower you.”
Of course, it depends on the person’s individual palate, he said. “I have seen people order a level 5, which is the highest level, and they are eating their food, content and happy. Others, you see them perhaps ordering a level 3 or 4 and they are sweating and turning red. It really depends on the person,” he said.
To quench our palates, my dining partner ordered the Two Hearted Ale, a hoppy, American IPA. The 16 oz. can, $6, was nice and cold. The size, a little bit larger than the usual U.S. size and more comparable to the European half liter, was more than enough to accompany the meal.
I ordered the Thai iced coffee, $4, nice and strong with sweetened condensed milk. It was yummy, and thankfully also doubled as dessert. Another item that piqued my interest was the Fancy Lychee cocktail with vodka. Very tempting.
I am most definitely not an expert on traditional Thai food, but I have visited Thailand and fell in love with the warmth and gentleness of the people I met and their wonderful cuisine.
Mai Pen Rai is a must for good, authentic Thai food at reasonable prices.
We shall return.
Mai Pen Rai
303 Calle Canals, Santurce, San Juan
Tel: 787 998 6338