For two years now, Blue Elephant Thai Restaurant has been serving delicious and nourishing food off 2nd Avenue in Coralville, in between Nailville Salon and Almost Paradise Tobacco & Vapor. Thai cuisine is known for its blend of sour, sweet, salty, savory and sometimes creamy notes, and it’s this perfect meld of flavor that Blue Elephant gets right.
Blue Elephant’s dining area is split into two rooms with a wide floor-to-ceiling plant stand that is absolutely draped in lush green pothos plants. Brightly colored floral arrangements are scattered throughout a little sea of tables with white tablecloths, below a ceiling painted with blue and white swirls.
I was struck by what my water arrived in: a silver aluminum pitcher etched with traditional Thai motives. Little things like that can make even water taste better. After a long, cold morning of making deliveries around the Corridor (I work for a locally owned coffee roastery) it felt holy to wrap my hands around a steaming mug of jasmine tea ($3) and soak in this ambience.
Blue Elephant’s menu is expansive and offers appetizers, Thai noodles, Thai curry, fried rice, entrees, desserts and drinks (all non-alcoholic). The majority of items run under $20. Their prices may crest the average for the area, but considering that all of their sauces are homemade with only fresh, whole ingredients, it feels warranted. Their menu helpfully highlights healthy plates and indicates spiciness on a 1 to 5 scale.
If I see spring rolls on a menu, I’m ordering them; this time was no different. The crisp lettuce and carrot in the two-piece spring rolls ($9.50) were delightfully crunchy and were to be dipped, if one wanted to (and one should), in their homemade peanut sauce. Chicken satay ($11.50), which includes four perfectly tender pieces of meat seasoned with curry all throughout, arrived sitting atop lettuce leaves and came with a thick, bold, curry charged peanut butter sauce. Consider this chicken satay as an alternative to buffalo wings — and with the bamboo skewers, less messy to boot. Mouth watering yet?
Typically I don’t go for a sugar-forward sauce, but I had to try the Pad Ki Mao (Drunken Noodles, $15.50) because at this point I had a hunch that I would thoroughly enjoy whatever came out of that kitchen — and I’m a sucker for Thai basil. Sweet and tangy with a hint of heat, the saucy Thai rice noodle dish came topped with a small handful of cilantro and garnished with lime. Delicious.
Definitely get the larb ($17.50), a funky minced meat salad, if you enjoy pungent flavors and lots of herbs! Note that there are red, green and white onions in this dish, so the acidic level is on the high end. Lemongrass, mint and cilantro infuse this well-spiced minced meat (I ordered beef, but you can also order chicken or pork), which sat atop lettuce leaves, and is served with sticky rice. Dig in how you would like, but I enjoyed putting the sticky rice and minced meat in little lettuce wraps and chomping away!
If pressed I would say that the Tiger Cried Beef with Sticky Rice ($18.50) is my favorite dish at Blue Elephant. The sticky rice, chewy with a dash of sweet, complimented the umami flavoring of the grilled beef swimmingly. Enjoy it wrapped in its accompanying charred lettuce and a dollop of chili paste and you have yourself a perfectly seasoned, balanced meal. Indulgent yet healthy, there was a lot of satisfied finger licking that went on here!
When researching Blue Elephant Thai Restaurant online, I came across many other restaurants with a similar name. Curious as to why this was, Alek told me that Blue Elephant is also the name of a renowned cooking school in Thailand. Unsure of whether there is any connection between the two (the owner was unavailable), I’m under the assumption that someone associated with Blue Elephant trained at this cooking school. Whether or not this is the case, it’s clear that both the school and this restaurant are committed to keeping the tradition of cooking and sharing delicious Thai cuisine with the world.
Despite a couple signs posted communicating staffing shortages and that patience and understanding are requested, the tightly run ship of Blue Elephant is kind, adept and experienced — marks of excellent service, if you ask me. The care put into the whole experience of dining at Blue Elephant was evident to me, which is a quality that will keep me coming back.
Next time I go to Blue Elephant will be on a Tuesday, which is the only day of the week they serve som tum (papaya salad, $11.50). I’m already daydreaming about ordering curry, which I saw at a lucky table nearby. Dear readers, this is a delicious trip worth your time, money and above all, your palate.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 317.