Food & DrinkThe Newbie Foodie

Rai Lay Lives up to High Expectations

In my introductory Queen City Nerve column, I mentioned my love for spice. For those who didn’t read said column, I’m new here (hence the overly corny column name), and before leaving Chicago for the Queen City, I had one of the best Thai restaurants in the Windy right across the street from me. Needless to say, I was a regular.

The first Thai restaurant in Chicago opened in the neighborhood where I grew up. It was just blocks away, but I never ventured over until years later. My thought when I finally tried it was, “Why did I wait so long?” I’ve had a love affair with Thai food ever since, and I was hoping moving to Charlotte wouldn’t leave me wanting.

Checking out possibilities, I happened upon Rai Lay in South End. Scanning the menu, I noticed the prices were a bit steeper than I was used to at my go-to spot back home. One of the perks of Thai food for me was enjoying a lot of taste without forking out too much cash. Rai Lay’s prices aren’t outrageous, but more than I was used to spending for Thai, so I thought, “This better be good.”

The restaurant is small and cozy and has been crowded every time I stopped by, so you might have to wait. There’s a bar with TVs on one side of the room where you can order beer, wine or sake while you bide your time. If the bar is packed, there’s not a lot of space to hang inside before you’re called.

Rai Lay is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and just dinner on Sunday. They’re closed Mondays.
On my first visit, I ordered kao soy with shrimp for $18 while my wife went with her fave, pad Thai with chicken for $16. Other options for protein include beef, tofu, pork and crabmeat, depending on the dish, with veggie options available as well.

Spice level options go from 1-5, and I’ve heard you might want to have the Charlotte Fire Department on call if you go toward the top of that rating.

In Chicago, I’ve never had kao soy (apparently often spelled khao soi) before, or even noticed it offered. It was suggested as a level 1 and since the young lady serving us suggested it would be plenty spicy, I decided to go the way of the natives. Eyeing the generous portion laid out in front of me, I no longer had reason to bitch about the prices.

Kao soy (Photo by Darrell Horwitz)

It was listed as a “Northern Thai favorite.” There were loads of tail-on shrimp in a savory broth, along with perfectly cooked curry noodles topped with crispy noodles, red onion, fried shallots, and a few other ingredients to take the flavor to another dimension. Chili oil comes on the side if you want to kick it up a notch, which I did after enjoying half the dish in its natural state. It didn’t need it, but as I mentioned before, I like it hot.

My wife’s pad Thai came with rice noodles, egg, bean sprouts and scallion topped with ground peanuts. She liked it better than the one she adored in Chicago and so did I. It was juicier and so much to eat, she said she would have leftovers for two days.

When I was nearly done, someone came by asking if I was finished. I told them I was still working on it. What I didn’t admit was that I wanted to lick the bowl first because it was so good.

On our next visit, we shared an appetizer and a main course. I opted for the gyoza, which are pan-seared pork dumplings with sweet soy sauce, for $8. They had a nice crisp texture, and the sweet soy added to the flavor. You can also get them steamed.

For our entrée, I chose my favorite dish. We had the spicy basil with chicken for 15 bucks, which included onion, fresh chili garlic, red pepper and, of course, basil. We went with the 2-star level of heat to appease my wife. She said it was just right, alluding to Goldilocks. It was good for me, too, though I probably would have opted for the next level on my own.

The combination of flavors was intense, with the onions adding sweetness. My wife enjoyed the peppers as well. It was a nice addition to the dish.

We also did carry-out on another occasion, taking the kao soy home with us. It was just as good outside of its natural habitat. I noticed they do a great carry-out business, looking at the orders waiting to be picked up.
Service was excellent each time we were there. The wait staff was very friendly and kept filling the water glass.

My rating: 4 bites out of 4. What can I say? This is a great little spot to enjoy out of this world Thai cuisine.

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