Nashville Restaurants and Food
The Smiling Elephant
2213 8th Ave. South
The Kopsombut family takes great care in just about every aspect of this Melrose area Thai restaurant. From the homey cedar interior to the modern stylish dinnerware, there is a delicate spirit to the place, which is an extension of the food itself. The Smiling Elephant is a bit of an adventure. In one dish you might experience a softer touch in the flavor department, and then in another dish you encounter fiery Thai spice.
The short menu is highlighted by the pad Thai. It’s their signature dish, and when you proclaim the best pad Thai you need to live up to expectations. It is a precise rendering with good flavor and distinct textures and tastes. The daily curry specials also receive top billing, and for good reason, they are likely to get your attention quickly. The green curry ordered at normal spice level is like a rocket going off in your throat. That doesn’t mask the great flavor though, and once you settle in with a couple of napkins to mop the brow, it really does feel like the perfect balance of spice and taste. The pork was nicely moist and held its own in the spicy curry.
You can order dishes as entrees or as a set. The set comes with the vegetarian soup, featuring a light slightly vinegar broth and crisp baby corn, cucumber, water chestnut, spinach and mushrooms. A little red pepper provides a pleasant heat. A tiny dessert comes with the set, on this day jack fruit with milk and syrup. While the combo provides a nice array of flavors we found that instead of ordering the set you may want to consider just getting an appetizer. The fresh rolls have thick, chewy rice paper wrappers with cellophane noodles and carrot inside. They are cut into six pieces for a pretty presentation and topped with ginger.
The classic Pad Kra Pao gets a kick from holy basil, which despite the name tastes quite different from Thai basil. The stir fried pork is perfectly cooked and nicely spiced. A fried egg underneath gives a rich note to the dish. You’ll find the portions a bit smaller at the Smiling Elephant. That combined with the prices may turn some people off. In the end you get plenty to eat and the difference in quality of ingredients and execution in the kitchen is worth the money.
Veggie Eater: I ordered my pad Thai native hot, only to find it without any discernable heat. However, what it lacked for in capsaicin, it made up for in other flavors. The noodles were wide bean noodles and perfectly prepared; a little slippery, a little chewy. The sauce was very light and virtually no syrupy gloppiness that pad Thai seems to be prone to. This was then adorned generously with bits of tofu, eggs, and bean sprouts, pea pods, and scallions. Perhaps not the best pad Thai I’ve ever had (I’ve not experienced that since living in Nashville), but certainly better than what I usually get. I understand the curries can bring tears to your eyes and I absolutely must try one next time.
Meat Eater: Restaurants run in this family. The Kopsombuts are relatives of the Myints, Arnold of Cha Cha and Suzy Wongs and Patti of the International Market. The restaurant has a homey touch and at the end of the meal if you have enjoyed what you have eaten, you’re encouraged to bang the little gong on your way out the door. Given the smiling, bustling crowd, even at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, there is going to be plenty of gongs heard on 8th Avenue for some time to come.