There used to be only one Thai restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Now there are two. Well sort of.
You see Orchidea Thai has opened a second location. Up on the hill. Up on Salida Real a Queretaro. Up where I live. A location that I can walk to. With the slightly longer name of Orchidea Thai Garden & Spa.
“But this one’s different”, owner Nitinun (better known as Nina) Ayres Scholl told me. “Our other menu is Thai. This one is all kinds of Asian…Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Laotian.”
It was the first time I’d met Nina Scholl, a woman with more charms than a bushel of Pandora bracelets.
“I used to be on the sidelines at our original location”, said Nina, “now I’m stepping out a little.”
Nina showed me the new menu. There were a lot of things I wanted to try. And I had a solution. Almost all Asian food is best eaten family-style. Big plates in the middle. Everyone having a bit of this. A bit of that. A bit more of their favorite this and favorite that.
The problem with family-style was the closest my close family lives is close to 5,000 klicks away. So I needed an alternative. And very close behind close family are close friends. An email went out and, within a few minutes, twenty of us had a dinner date at Orchidea Thai Garden & Spa. You might call it friendly-style.
But what to choose from the menu? It’s much more inventive than most Asian menus…no pad thai, no green curry. Plus it’s shorter than most Asian menus. But it was still one tough task.
I said to Nina, “Why don’t you choose four or five mains for us, the ones you’re most proud of.”
Nina chose six.
The casual lower level of Orchidea is now open for lunch and early dinners. The second level dining room is due to be officially opened in June. Nina Scholl gave us a sneak preview and set an absolutely magnificent table, almost as colorful as herself.
The intense spicing of Asian food almost demands beer or white wine in my opinion. So it was good news that, unlike most brand new San Miguel restaurants, Orchidea Thai Garden & Spa is already licensed.
We sampled some crispy and not at all greasy spring rolls plus good steamed dumplings. Then out came the mains.
Orchidea’s Go Xao matches chicken with the holy trinity of Asian spices: lemongrass, garlic and chiles. I thought this Vietnamese dish that’s served over rice noodles at Orchidea might be too spicy for Don Day’s Wife. She pronounced it “hot…but just right hot”.
If you’re used to Asian restaurants getting their mushrooms out of a can like I am, finding fresh portabellos in a dish is a very nice surprise. The primary taste in the sauce is ginger and there are three different proteins: pork, beef and shrimp.
Orchidea’s Musman Curry (or what I know better as Massaman Curry) looks like the beef stew Mom used to make, with potatoes, carrots and some of the tenderest beef you’ve ever tasted. Massaman is one of the mildest curries you will ever experience with the C spices: cardamom, cloves, cumin and cinnamon all making a contribution to the complicated flavor.
Larb is the unofficial national dish of Laos. I always have problems avoiding it. I think it’s partly because I love saying the word. Laaaaaaaarrrrrrrb! It’s also because larb is considered a “salad” but it’s the meatiest salad you can imagine. The meat in Orchidea’s version is ground pork. The spicing is more intense than what I’m used to and this one had a little too much heat for Don Day’s Wife.
I’m nuts about nuts in Asian dishes. And I’ve had a lot with peanuts. A few with cashews. But I’ve never had one with almonds, certainly not as many almonds as there is in Orchidea’s Garden Chicken. There’s a wide array of garden vegetables including broccoli, carrots, onions and zucchini. And if you’re wondering where Nina Scholl gets her almost-impossible-to-find-in-San Miguel lemongrass, she grows her own.
Pad Woonsen is Don Day’s Wife’s much-preferred-over-Pad Thai’s stir-fried noodle dish. The reason she (and I) like it is the much lighter cellophane noodles. The noodles are made not from wheat, not from rice, but from soybeans. The Pad Woonsen at Orchidea has lots of garlic in the sauce, lots of green onions and celery on the side, and, most important, not a lot of sugar.
The original Orchidea Thai was started by Nina’s daughter Rod in 2011 after growing up at her mother’s restaurant, Indochine, in San Antonio, Texas.
“When Rod was 17, my husband Jimmie said, “Either me or the restaurant.”
Rod passed away in 2015 when she was still very young. In 2016, Nina lost Jimmie.
“Orchidea Thai Garden & Spa…is dedicated to my beloved late husband”, said Nina. “He had decided to make this city his final destination. It is to share his love of spas and healthy, flavorful dishes.”
When Nina talks about her family, when she talks about her food, there is always enthusiasm, always passion.
“You know why I’m going back there. Just for her. Just for Nina,” Mark Tamiso said to me. “She’s one of those irresistible characters. Like Mario at Mario’s. Or Antonio at Firenze.”
I’m going back too. And not just for Nina. There are a lot of other dishes I haven’t tried yet.
Orchidea Thai Garden & Spa is located at Salida Real a Queretaro 173 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The lower floor restaurant and spa is now open. The second floor dining room is scheduled to open in June.