Sengchai Thai Cuisine


Sengchai Thai: an enticing taste of the good old days

C. Z. Cramer

[Maine Sunday Telegram 7/25/04]

Exploring Portland's Asian restaurants is an ongoing pastime for many of us who perpetually seek new dishes and flavors. We found a delicious new source for Thai food recently at Sengchai Thai Cuisine.

Owner and proprietor Suwanna Truong's personal story is one of success, tragic loss, determination and redemption. Having lost a friend and countrywoman to a deadly fire that also destroyed her previous restaurant on St. John Street, Truong worked hard to return to the business. She opened Seng- chai about a year ago on Forest Avenue.

The dining room is a clean and serene space with lighting just soft enough to put a mellow glow on the mood. The atmosphere is informal but orderly, and the decor is fairly plain with a few jazzy accents in the form of glittery chandeliers and icicle lights in the windows and live bamboo plants placed about. Truong is hospitable and charmingly polite; her smile lights up the room.

Three of us were shown to a booth and served giant tumblers of ice water. We ordered a bottle of Lagaria pinot grigio, light and cool and quite a bargain ($14). There are house wines by the glass and bottled beer (from $3) as well, including Singha from Thailand.

Sengchai's menu is organized into the usual Thai restaurant categories, beginning with appetizers, soups and salads and followed by sections for seafood, duck, noodles, rice, meats, curries and house specialties. Also as usual, it takes a few minutes of reading to get your bearings.

Our waiter gladly took our order for appetizers to share while we negotiated a selection of main courses. Kai pa nang ($5.20 for six), which we selected over the more familiar chicken satay at the suggestion of our waiter, were delicious. Like the satay, the kai pa nang consisted of grilled chicken, with the pieces of boneless breast pounded into broad, flat oblongs about 3 by 5 inches, and threaded one piece per wooden skewer. Unlike satay, which usually comes with a separate dipping sauce, they were served already cloaked in a delicate panang sauce tasting of peanut and coconut milk and other spices. The chicken was unusually tender and moist, and the sauce was delightful.

Sengchai's spring rolls ($3.50 for two) had a more distinctive personality than many we've had elsewhere. Tender, translucent wrappers formed cylinders around julienned carrot, glass noodles, minced chicken and fresh mint. Flavors were bright and distinctive. Even better, the rolls were cut into convenient, bite-size pieces. The clear, mild vinegar-and-sweet dipping sauce that usually accompanies spring rolls was nicely jazzed up with toasted sesame seeds.

Kat-tong thong ($4.95 for nine), another appetizer endorsed by our waiter, was also a winner. Wonton skins had been fitted and baked in very small fluted tart molds to form tiny, crisp pastry shells no bigger than a walnut shell. These were stuffed with a tasty mixture of ground chicken, kernels of corn and finely minced onions and carrots. Sweet and sour sauce accompanied these little bites, which would make wonderful cocktail party hors d'oeuvres.

A seafood entree called "ocean cried" ($9.95) was a stir-fried combination of shrimp, scallops, mussels, fish and artfully trimmed squid tossed among fresh cauliflower, carrots, snow peas and bell pepper strips in a spicy ginger sauce. The sauce was dark and briny, and the Thai spices very interesting.

Sengchai uses a three-star chili heat rating system, and we requested all our entrees at the two-star level. And they really were two-star hot; the kitchen did not hold back in fear of shocking us.

Duck choo chee ($9.95), a very hearty curry, was another dish that was seasoned with a pleasantly complicated spice mixture. The choo chee curry mixture had coconut milk, as many Thai curries do, but it didn't dominate or turn the dish sweet and cloying. Great flavorful chunks of boned roast duck with choice bits of the crisp tasty skin still clinging were tossed among carrots, onions, snow peas and strips of bell pepper.

Pad thai was - of course - the headliner of the menu's noodle section. We love the stuff, but in the spirit of broadening our horizons we ordered the "drunken noodle" instead, with tofu ($5.95). It combined very broad noodles in a pan-fried toss with bits of egg, triangles of fried tofu (other proteins including chicken, pork and shrimp were optional), and broccoli, carrots and snow peas with the zingy flavor of fresh Thai basil and cilantro. The sauce was dark and fiery, with just a grace note of slight sweetness. Why this dish was called drunken was a mystery; it struck us instead as the perfect cure for what ails you.

Sengchai's menu has many more dishes we intend to return for, such as the larb moo salad of ground pork with lemon grass and lemon leaf served on lettuce and cucumbers ($8.20), and hot basil vegetables and fresh basil with a choice of meats (from $5.95), and steamed ginger fish ($9.95). Menu descriptions for each dish contain better explanatory detail than at many other Thai restaurants, and prices are exceptionally reasonable. Not a single dish costs more than $9.95.

Our meal at Sengchai had a home-cooked heartiness to it. The restaurant appeared less focused on garnish than we have seen elsewhere. While the carrot disks certainly were prettily cut with a scalloped edge and plates of appetizers have attractive translucent cucumber coins and other small Far Eastern flourishes, there were no dizzying displays of tomato-skin floral sculpture or carrot lilies. The nuance was focused in the seasonings. Entrées were simply presented with molded mounds of white basmati rice.

It was as if we had found the Thai version of an old-fashioned, trustworthy diner where the food was remarkably inexpensive but generously served and delicious. Sengchai's staff was also most definitely from those same good old days of civility and manners.

Sengchai Thai Cuisine

803 Forest Ave Portland

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Credit cards: MC, Visa, American Express
Vegetarian dishes: Yes
Price range: Entrees $7.45-$11.45
Reservations: Accepted
Wheelchair access: Accessible
Bottom line: Mark this caf_ as a spotless, hospitable oasis on the Thai food map of the city, where spicy flavors are bright and enticing and prices are extremely low.

Audience welcomes letters from Taste & Tell readers. Letters should be fewer than 200 words and include full name, address and a telephone number. All letters may be edited. Address letters to Linda Fullerton, managing editor, features, Maine Sunday Telegram, P.O. Box 1460, Portland 04104; email:


Sengchai Thai Cusine



Suwanna Truong was a familiar face at Seng Thai for years, one of the first Thai restaurants in Portland. Now relocated to an elegant storefront in a city that prides itself on its seafood, Sengchai's spicy salmon and curried mussels are a revelation. Even Thai classics like pad thai and tom kha gai soup seem new here. Portland is amid a thriving Asian restaurant renaissance, but Sengchai is among its favorites.

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