Benja’s Thai and Sushi – 1281 Hillcrest Rd – Mobile, AL 36695
There is bound to be a line between fast food and slow food, casual and fine dining, but you’re just not always sure where that line should be drawn. As you graduate from burgers and fries to order by numbers, then onto appetizers and desserts followed by reservations and wine lists, there will be those in-between spots uneasily defined.
Maybe we pigeonhole too much, anyway. Sometimes we should look at these mid-priced restaurants through a different prism, leaning harder on good versus not-so-good instead of white tablecloth versus lunch counter. We have to start somewhere, though, and we need descriptions to guide us. I shall do my best as I am struggling to define this week’s review of West Mobile’s Benja’s.
This is an Asian restaurant at the corner of Hillcrest and Grelot, right beside the Starbuck’s. The backstory is Ms. Benjawan left Thailand for Mobile in 2008, opened her own restaurant in 2015 in Tillman’s Corner, and relocated to this spot in 2019. It has a bit of a corporate feel, but nice to know it came from humble beginnings.
I was having lunch with my eldest, Lucas, trying to get in as much father/son time before he hits the dorms again. At his school they frown upon dad eating lunch daily in the cafeteria and shadowing his class schedules. Must be some sort of COVID protocol. We realized how difficult it would be to write an article this size as we stood staring at a menu of another place that sold only wings and fries, so we figured Benja’s would be a better fit for our needs.
When we pulled in, we noticed a drive-thru. It spooked me a little. Same goes for the ordering at the counter and paper plates. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I drove over there, but I was now pretty certain there would not be a wine list. A look at the menu relaxed me a little, and I figured we’d give it a go. No sense in turning up the nose to a second restaurant. We didn’t have time for a third.
As predictable as can be, my son wanted Shrimp Summer Rolls ($4.95 per pair). On a paper plate with a plastic cup of peanut sauce, the presentation isn’t date night worthy, but the rolls were good. No pork in these, but heavy on the shrimp and veggies. I’d say the light peanut sauce would benefit from a big dose of chili oil, but we weren’t looking to get sweaty. It was a good entry.
The App Combo ($9.50) seemed like a great way to get a look into a few things at once. Two spring rolls, tightly packed and crispy, are as normal as you could hope for them to be, same goes for the two Crab Rangoon. They only serve a solo Shrimp Cream Cheese Roll, but we are both double vaccinated and free of the bonds of pride. We took turns biting on this small roll, Lucas explaining he isn’t fond of cream cheese, but this was an exception for him.
The Pork Dumplings (be sure to read last week’s potsticker column) were totally deep fried, straight into the grease from what we figure, however very acceptable. I did miss having a good, loose sauce for dipping, but the dumplings themselves were nice.
I had a small order of Tom Yum Chicken ($4.50), which was enough for two. Lots of mushrooms and tender chicken were accented by a healthy shot of chili flakes, not enough to light you up, but enough to know it’s there. I struggled with the tiny spoons, but it may have slowed me down enough for it to be in my favor.
Lucas was on the fence between a few items, realizing we had eaten too much sushi (yes, there is such a thing) last week. He turned his eyes towards the Chicken Teriyaki ($10.95). The chicken itself had sort of a grayish hue with the teriyaki sauce drizzled over, but the flavor was all there. A little bit of carrot, broccoli and onion (I had his onion) made this a very decent dish with a sizable inverted bowl of jasmine rice he barely touched.
I was lured in by the Crispy Catfish in Curry ($11.95). The fish was tempura battered, crispy under the red curry with red bell pepper and basil leaves. If it came with any jalapeños, I didn’t detect it, but the sauce was really good over the jasmine rice which I made more use of than my son.
With plenty to take home and a bill close to the $50 mark, I’d call this a successful lunch. There isn’t much ambience, and I’ll say the drive-thru window was busy with call-in orders, so it kind of set the tone.
We didn’t have any sushi, not that I’d be afraid of it, it just wasn’t our thing that day. Did I mention there’s a drive-thru? Perhaps I’m not at the drive-thru sushi point, yet. But hey, remember a short while ago when drive-thru food was all you could get? These guys may be onto something. In the event of another shutdown, I would say that little food window is nothing more than a window of opportunity!
Here is the real skinny: take this food and serve it in real china with forks, knives, spoons and chopsticks and you’d pay much more. I’m hesitant to call it fast food, because I feel they’re really cooking in there. Whatever you’d like to call it, the wait wasn’t long.
I’d say give this one a go with more expectation than paper plates and plastic ware normally drum up. We wouldn’t shy away from a repeat visit if we were in the area. Let Benja’s surprise you.
This page is available to our local subscribers. Click here to join us today and get the latest local news from local reporters written for local readers. The best deal is found by clicking here. Check it out now.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here