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Save while sampling Thai Bistro’s buffet

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“Louis dish beef“ is served during Thai Bistro’s lunch buffet and is available on its regular menu. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
Kids 7-12 can eat Thai Bistro’s lunch buffet for $10.95. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
Tilapia is prepared in a red curry sauce for Thai Bistro’s lunch buffet in Medford. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
A plate from Thai Bistro’s lunch buffet includes, from top left, spicy catfish, sweet and sour tofu, tempura vegetables and chicken yakisoba. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
Desserts are included in Thai Bistro’s lunch buffet in Medford. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
Aquariums are part of Thai Bistro’s decor in Medford. [Sarah Lemon/Mail Tribune]
Medford restaurant serves all-you-can-eat weekday lunch

The cost of restaurant food that once seemed affordable takeout or family fare has caused me to reconsider convenience versus value.

Pizza, sushi, Mexican and Thai cuisine all have higher price tags — like so many other products and services — since the coronavirus pandemic. And they should. But that also means I probably shouldn’t eat them as often.

Significant savings still reside, however, in some local lunch buffets. And Medford’s Thai Bistro is near the top of my list. A recent lunch with my son allowed for sampling a half-dozen dishes, plus appetizers and desserts, for less than the cost of two regular entrees.

Thai Bistro has long occupied the top tier of pricing for Thai food in Medford. But the restaurant founded in 1999 by Sandy Buakhieo has enjoyed a loyal following, even during the pandemic’s pivot to takeout only. I heard several months ago the dining room on Stevens Street had reopened and planned a visit.

Unsure of the status of Thai Bistro’s popular lunch buffet, I felt like I’d arrived late to the party on a recent weekday. The expansive dining room hosted numerous customers, in groups large and small, both for the buffet and regular menu.

More interested in Thai Bistro’s fish tanks than its hot line, my son brightened at the mention of beef and the sight of cookies and other desserts at the buffet’s far end. Because the seats nearest the aquariums were taken, we chose a booth with a straight path to the food.

Affording all you can eat weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the buffet costs $15.95 for adults, $10.95 for ages 7-12, $7.50 for ages 3-6 and is complimentary for kids 2 and younger.

Variety was weighted slightly toward vegetarian and seafood dishes on the day we visited. I eagerly spooned sweet and sour tofu and “vegetable delight” over a hearty helping of fried rice, taking smaller amounts of spicy catfish and red curry tilapia. A fish lover, I’m choosy about species, particularly those that are farmed.

My son scooped up some fried rice and eyed the vegetables left in the tray labeled “Louis dish beef.” The host had assured us the hot line was being refilled when we walked in, and I told my son to wait a few more minutes until a fresh batch of beef arrived.

Because we ended up waiting about 20 minutes, I allowed him to pick out a cookie and brownie and take yet another gander at the dining room’s aquatic life. My take on the finned specimens prepared for consumption was surprisingly favorable.

The tilapia, which I often find muddy-tasting, was the cleanest I can recall sampling in a local restaurant. The red curry sauce — studded with bell peppers and tomato — revealed spot-on spice that tempered the fish’s inherent flavor without obscuring it.

Whereas the large tilapia fillet was tender and flaky, the smaller strips of catfish had a chewier but pleasant texture. A light coating soaked up the fish’s sauce, which conveyed just enough heat and convinced me to go back for another couple of strips.

I only wish I had been able to sample the tempura vegetables right out of the fryer. The onion ring, mushroom half and wedge of zucchini I selected weren’t as delicately battered as some versions of tempura but no doubt would be at their peak piping hot.

A better bet was the fried spring roll, its wrapper still flaky despite the steam-tray stint. I enjoyed it alongside a cup of the day’s soup, chicken glass noodle, in which leafy greens were more apparent than poultry. Chicken likewise took a back seat to vegetables in the yakisoba.

The beef dish finally replenished, my son made tracks for the buffet, and I reasoned I could manage a small taste. Admonishing him to ladle some vegetables with the meat, I countered his carnivorous tendencies by seeking out vibrant snow peas, crunchy water chestnuts, toothsome baby corn and shiitake mushrooms, enriched with a generous addition of whole cashews. A straightforward stir-fry in a mild savory sauce, the dish was delicious directly from the kitchen.

I was too stuffed even for a palate cleansing salad, appointed with thick slices of cucumber and wedges of tomato alongside cubes of melon. My son praised the sweets while I took a single obligatory bite of fried, coconut-crusted banana, another item best enjoyed straight from its oil bath.

Those preferring to order off Thai Bistro’s regular lunch menu can expect prices from $13.95 for meat or tofu to $16.95 for seafood. Among my favorite entrees, crispy fried fish and roast duck cost $13.95 and $15.95, respectively.

By comparison, the chef’s special roast duck in wine sauce costs $26.95 on the Thai Bistro dinner menu. Acknowledging lunch portions are smaller, the menu states that both lunch and dinner are served all day.

Located at 535 Stevens St., Thai Bistro is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, from 2 to 8 p.m. Saturday. See thaibistroonline.com or call 541-772-6200.

Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or slemon@rosebudmedia.com