Tee Nee Thai. With a Name Like That…

I found myself near the Rose Garden in San Jose last week, looking for a place for lunch. I turned to Yelp and vetoed a couple good alternatives. Bill’s Cafe was nearby. I’ve been there and the food is good, but I passed because I would have felt a little narcissistic eating there. Calvin’s South Philly Cheesesteaks on the Alameda is always a solid choice, but I knew if I went there without my wife and boy I would never hear the end of it. It’s one of our favorite eateries on the planet. But Yelp came through for me, steering me to a restaurant a few doors up from Calvin’s called Tee Nee Thai Cuisine.

Tee Nee ThaiI can’t lie. I went because the name is infectiously cute. Tee Nee Thai. That’s probably the worst reason to pick a place to eat, but sometimes if it just feels right you go with your instincts. For sure sometimes names can be deceiving. There used to be a joint in Mountain View called Thai-Riffic. I went there once. It was Thai-Ribble. Firesign Theatre have a routine on their Boom Dot Bust album where they talk about a fictional establishment called Thai Food Mary’s. You won’t be able to resist their resistant strained noodles! (Yeah, it’s in Billville. There’s that darned narcissism again.) So let’s just say I was cautious.

Plus there’s a seamier side to the name. In front of the restaurant there’s a lovely and welcoming wooden statueTee Nee Thai Statue of a female figure, maybe a Thai dancer, wearing an ornately blinged-out off-the-shoulder midriff-exposing top. And she’s kinda hot, at least as wooden statues go. So one can’t help wondering what pleasures from the Orient await inside. Tee Nee Thai waitresses? Wearing Tee Nee Thai outfits? Oh come on, it’s not just me. You were thinking it too.

What I love about the name is its subtlety and humor. The online reviewers suggest the restaurant is called that because it’s small. I’m not so sure. It’s hardly a cavernous banquet hall but I’ve been in smaller places, and generally itty-bittiness is not regarded as an attribute to be lauded in the business name. And many small restaurants, if they’re good, expand as soon as they can. Tee Nee Thai had seating for about…oh…er…um…okay, I have to come clean. I don’t know how big it is because I didn’t actually go inside the restaurant. I ate there, but I sat outside at one of the sidewalk tables. I only got as far as the hostess podium which is separate from the dining area. The hostess met me at the door and I asked for a table outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. I caught a glimpse of the tables inside but I couldn’t tell you how big it is. So was it Tee Nee? Yeah, maybe.

I don’t know who owns Tee Nee Thai but I suspect it’s family-owned as so many of our favorite Thai restaurants tend to be. I have this vision of the proud family preparing to open their brand new restaurant and trying to find a good name. I’m sure they tried a bunch. Perhaps they weighed the brutally obvious: Bangkok Kitchen, Sweet Basil, Thai Noodle Shop. Perhaps they flirted with the obnoxiously puntastic: Thai One On, Thai Me A River, Thai Thai Again. But I prefer to believe that out of nowhere someone—ideally a doe-eyed child—spontaneously blurted “Tee Nee Thai” and sent everyone in the room into a fit of giggles. They looked at each other, wiped their eyes, and unanimously agreed that yes, their shared hilarity was a sign and that was the chosen name.

So how was the food? It was really good. The waitresses were friendly and yes, pretty, and happily not seamy at all. When I go to a new Thai restaurant I generally opt for one of my benchmark dishes like ground chicken or beef with basil and cashews so I can compare it to other restaurants. However they had a lunch special called Aloha Chicken which was similar to my benchmark but included pineapple. Now “Aloha” to my knowledge is not an authentic Thai word but again I was sucked in by its happy invitation and I confess I cannot resist pineapple so that’s what I ordered. It came with soup and salad. I’m generally not a soup guy but this one looked okay with its celery and zucchini and veggie broth. I didn’t see any yucky stuff so I dug in and was enjoying it until to my horror I discovered that the yucky stuff (tofu and carrots) was hanging out at the bottom of the cup and surfaced once I cleared the upper layers. What’s that you say? You love tofu and carrots and don’t find them yucky at all? I’m so happy for you. I’ll save them for you next time. This experience made me wonder if sinking or floating is a reliable test for yuckiness.

The Aloha Chicken was really tasty. Sweet and spicy and right in the pocket. The lunch portion was just right for a hungry boy like me and I cleaned my plate.

I had a good time at Tee Nee Thai. It was the right spot at the right time and I look forward to going back again. Maybe I’ll even work up the nerve to step into the actual dining room. What’s most gratifying though is that the name didn’t steer me wrong. By itself it promises nothing more than spicy basil-infused dishes with a dash of whimsy, but that’s enough to put me in the right frame of mind. It’s hard to think of a restaurant name more inviting. Except maybe “Bill’s.”

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