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Thai That Binds 

Bangkok cuisine in Cornelius

You don't have to twist my arm very hard for me to visit a Thai restaurant. Recently, I even went through the most dangerous and deadly part of town, the construction zone on I-77 north, to reach the Thai Grill, located on Main Street in Cornelius.

Owners Sunisa and Fa Puchakanit, who is also the chef, opened this small restaurant in 1999. Both are from Bangkok. Cooking Thai cuisine has been part of Fa Puchakanit's life since he started cooking in Bangkok restaurants when he was 12 years old. Later he opened his own restaurant there. When he moved to the US, he found a home in the kitchen of Rain, a Manhattan Thai/Pan-Asian restaurant.

Says Fa Puchakanit, "I worked as head chef at Rain and had reviews in all the New York papers, like the Daily News. Rain is a three star restaurant, but I wanted to move to North Carolina for my daughter." But Cornelius, NC, is not New York. Puchakanit continues, "People here (in Cornelius) don't eat out a lot."

Thai Grill is located in a stand-alone building, next to the firehouse and across the street from the train tracks. Immediately inside the door is a gift shop area. To the left is a small 50-seat dining room lined with high backed booths and a decor too busy to be comfy. Walls are painted deep green; wood paneling and booths are dark. Incense holders and other Thai artifacts dot the wall. Curiously, an unlit neon Winston display hangs beside a non-smoking sign. Tables are set with mats and linen napkins while menus arrive in old album covers. There is something a bit odd about selecting panang curry while staring at the face of James Taylor, with long hair, on his Sweet Baby James cover.

Servers are under the careful eye of Surisa Puchakanit, who greets regular customers with a hug. But while she is buzzing tirelessly around the room, service mishaps occur: the wine/beer list, albeit brief, is not handed out. Dishes are removed before everyone at the table has finished.

At first glance the menu seems the same old Thai. But then you see the soups. Tom Kha is an unusually formidable velvety coconut milk based soup that airily wafts the scents of galanga, lemon grass, and kiffir lime leaves. Small mushrooms and slices of zucchini take turns bobbing beneath the surface of this flavorful soup.

The steamed dumplings appetizer is also good, proving to be a delicate blend of chicken, shrimp, and water chestnuts. But skip the tightly packed spring rolls that were fried and overcooked.

Puchakanit's entrees are his strength. His favorite dishes are his steamed red snapper and panang curry, which is popular with students from nearby Davidson College. His panang curry has a powerful peanut base. I tried this spicy curry with scallops lushly surrounded by zucchini and broccoli. An excellent choice. The Pad Thai is fragrant and well balanced with deftly cooked noodles wending their way around tender bites of chicken and a tapestry of textures.

Thai Grill features the cuisine of Bangkok. Not all Thai cuisine is the same. Ingredients vary across this Asian nation. Says Puchakanit, "My style of cooking is 99.5 percent the same as Thailand. It's the same as Bangkok. Some recipes are different because they are mine. In the north (of Thailand) they eat sticky rice. They don't eat Jasmine rice and the taste is not too spicy. Around here (in Cornelius) they eat spicy, but not too crazy. I think I buy the chili more than other Thai restaurants in Charlotte." In fact, during the summer, Puchakanit grows his own chilies for use in the restaurant.

The surrounding Cornelius neighborhood has already discovered Thai Grill and Surisa Puchakanit seems to know them all. Hugs abound. That's the spirit of Thai Grill -- and it's just what this neighborhood needs.

Thai Grill, 19741 S. Main Street, Cornelius. 704-655-8880. Hours are 11am until 10pm, Monday through Saturday; 4pm until 9pm Sunday. Live music on the patio during the summer. AmEx, Visa, MC, Diners, Dis.

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