All the years we've been eating out in Pittsburgh have taught us to view certain streets as dining destinations. Corridors like Craig Street, in Oakland, East Carson Street on the South Side, and the nexus of Forbes and Murray Avenues, in Squirrel Hill, are places you might go to window-shop for your supper; they can be counted upon to offer new restaurants alongside the old favorites that have flourished in these locales for years. Butler Street is emerging in this regard, as is Brookline Boulevard.
But, curiously, "flourishing commercial thoroughfare" does not necessarily equal "rife with restaurants," at least of the non-take-out variety. Such is the case along Fifth Avenue in Oakland, though it strikes through the heart of the University of Pittsburgh and the sprawling UPMC complex. Maybe this is because even the sit-down places seemed more geared toward students and personnel in a hurry; maybe it's just because you can't park on Fifth.
Thai Hana seeks to buck the trend on Fifth with a combination of Thai and Japanese standards in an attractive, full-service setting. Walls painted deep red, leaf green and spice orange beckon diners to settle in and get comfortable, while signage and menu graphics suggest ambitions greater than serviceable food for people on the go. "Hana" means "flower" in Japanese, and at least half the menu is dedicated to Japanese food.
We can vouch for the chicken teriyaki, which transcended the clichés of this oft-abused dish. Thai Hana's featured extraordinarily tender morsels of slightly smoky chicken in a translucent sauce that was light and well balanced, a far cry from the typical sugary soy glaze. The usual suspects of stir-fry vegetables — paper-thin slices of mushroom, broccoli, carrots, green pepper and baby corn — were present, but took a back seat to the succulence of the chicken.
The same vegetables, minus the broccoli, reappeared in a Thai "spicy basil" noodle stir-fry, which was not particularly spicy or basil-flavored. The sauce tasted mostly like soy-inflected brown sauce, and the generic vegetable medley didn't help overcome this impression. However, the tofu Angelique opted as her protein was excellent, lightly crisped on the outside and creamy inside.
In the "curry corner" of the menu, at least, vegetables were assigned for their appropriateness to each individual curry. Jason ordered Panang curry, which contained green beans instead of broccoli, although bamboo (listed for red and green curries) was absent. The beef he selected was somewhat chewy, but the quality of the curry itself made this dish a candidate for best of the night. His request of "very spicy" (4 on a 5-point scale) was well met by the kitchen, with plenteous dried chili apparent in the thick, creamy sauce.
The other contender was a salad, nam sod, which is similar to larb, a more common Thai restaurant dish of cold minced meat in a light, lime-based dressing over lettuce and herbs. Thai Hana's nam sod featured additional ingredients such as more ginger, peanuts and some tomato chunks, while subtracting the heat that can make larb pretty fiery, for a cold plate. The ginger pushed the nam sod's dressing in a more pungent direction, while the additional components made it heartier.
Our meal had its ups and downs, and unfortunately pad Thai was the latter. The textures were right: slightly chewy egg noodles, tender chicken, plump shrimp. But they came together in a sauce that was one-dimensionally sweet, bypassing the perfect pad Thai balance of tangy, salty and sweet, with the faintest suggestion of spice.
Thai Hana presents few new directions in either Thai or Japanese cuisine, focusing instead on time-tested classics from the restaurant repertoire of each. The best dishes we had showed that Thai Hana can produce versions superlative enough to reawaken our appreciation for these menu standards. If the kitchen steps up its approach to the rest, Thai Hana could become known for serving the best of the best of Thai and Japanese classic dishes.