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When it comes to Thai, Blue Elephant is keeping it real
Straight up: Blue Elephant is an indie-eatery.
Forget about the conventional dining experience. If you don’t like surprises or tend to give a list of “do-this, don’t-do-thats” to the waiter, this probably is not the place for you.
But the adventurous foodie looking for authentic Thai will bask in Blue Elephant’s cuisine and curiosities.
First things first. Credit cards are not accepted; you can only pay by cash or check.
There are about 10 white-linen tables in the dining room, so if you don’t have a reservation, immediate seating is hit or miss. And since all the food is cooked to order, dishes will come out when they’re ready. A large party of say, eight, may be served incrementally rather than in tandem.
All of the recipes and cooking are in the hands of owner and chef, Dr. Paul Byington, who is also a Doctor of Tibetan Astrology and Psychology and a Feng Shui consultant.
And I’m giving you fair warning here: Don’t think you know authentic Thai “hot” unless you’ve been to Thailand. Blue Elephant is for real. Level two on the pepper scale here will make you sweat. Those in the know order “mild, mild” if they want the spice but not big heat.
Now on with the show.
We got lucky on our visit and were seated right away, in between two large groups and four-top tables that were marked as reserved.
The vibe was comfortable and communal. As dishes were served, forks and chopsticks dove in for a taste and a beautifully ornate covered rice bowl was passed around for all to share.
Service is special at Blue Elephant. The two waiters that evening worked the room at a perfect pace, patiently offering astute suggestions and wearing crisp shirts covered in tiny blue elephants.
To get this party started, we chose the Peak Gai Yatsai appetizer ($10) over the Danom Jeab (a chicken-based steamed dumpling) that was also in the running.
Yatsai was an intriguing chicken wing, stuffed with glass noodles, mushrooms and shaved carrots, crisped up tempura-style and served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce.
After a successful and delish foray into this unknown territory, we were ready to take on the rest of the menu.
Coconut soup, papaya salad, red, green and yellow curries and Pad Thai noodles aside, we decided to reach outside our comfort zone once again.
I went for a mild version of Gai Pad Met Ma-Muang ($17), a stir-fry of thinly sliced chicken, cashews, onions, mushrooms, baby corn and lemongrass. The delicate sauce was even more of a treat drizzled over a spoonful of tender rice.
Even with the warnings from our waiter and fellow diners, my husband ordered the Ped Tamarin ($24) or “crispy duck” at a two-degree level of spicy.
After about three mouthfuls, I looked up to see his face was beet red and beads of sweat were trickling down the side of his face.
“It’s hot,” he said, “but it’s so good I can’t stop eating it. This is the best heat I’ve ever had.” Needless to say, the “authentic” fourth-degree of spiciness could blow your head off.
Listed as a “must try” on the menu, the duck dons a crispy outside and is cooked with ginger, carrots, peas, black mushrooms and pineapple and is then slathered with Tamarin sauce speckled with bright peppers.
The “Chef’s Specialties” at Blue Elephant are seafood-intensive. Two house favorites are the Pad Goong Gra Tiem ($25) and Thai Elephant Seafood.
Goong Gra Tiem is a combo stir-fry of garlic shrimp, oyster sauce, mushrooms, baby corn, onions and carrots. The table beside us ordered it on noodles and they told us that they are practically addicted to that dish.
Thai Elephant Seafood incorporates shrimp, scallops, calamari, salmon and New Zealand mussels sautéed with glass noodles, ginger, baby corn, black mushrooms, carrots, peas and a secret sauce. The medley is served in foil on a hot plate.
Before we had finished dinner, Dr. Paul made his rounds to ask all of us how we enjoyed our meal. He was greeted warmly and by name by most diners that night, which is a good indication that Blue Elephant has a following of regulars.
As chain restaurants and Calabash copycats continue to creep into the Grand Strand landscape, it’s refreshing to happen upon an independent and authentic place that appears to worry more about being true to the experience rather than volume.
Blue Elephant Thai Cuisine
4493-C Highway 17 Business.
Murrells Inlet, SC 29576
Hours: Opens at 5 p.m. daily.