NEW BEDFORD — Spicy Lime may be the only restaurant in the city where customers trade their garden yield for dinner. Co-owner Lita Sawang encourages her patrons to bring in ingredients like Thai basil and tomatoes from their own home gardens so she can produce fresh, traditional cuisine with West Coast panache. Sawang is a Thailand native by way of San Francisco. Although some garden-grown ingredients her guests cart in are not traditionally Thai, she wants to support local growers and fishermen.
“Flavor-wise, we will try our best to keep it original, but the look we go for adds more veggies,” Sawang says. “It’s healthier, it looks more appetizing. Knowing where your food comes from is a blessing — especially when it comes from your own backyard.”
Spicy Lime is what Sawang calls “just a hole in the wall with good food.” But the fact that the restaurant has been open for nearly seven years in a sleepy downtown seems to suggest a bit more. Natural light from an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows spills into a compact dining room that holds about 11 tables with white tablecloths and glass tops. Locals lunch leisurely while they chat over the hum of the kitchen radio. A smiling Buddha in black paint and strings of twinkle lights adorn a white wall, perpendicular to a sea-foam green one, warming the room with its eclectic charm.
Sawang runs the restaurant with her husband, Phill Winslow. Their only employees are Sawang’s mother, Yai Sawang, and a cook known as P.A., which leaves the management, cooking, and serving duties to this skilled team of four. None come from a culinary background, but all have a deep interest in dining. “Phill has a real passion for making food disappear,” says his wife.
Lita Sawang learned to prepare meals from her mother. As a child, she imitated her cooking with a toy kitchen set made of clay and then began to cook for herself when she moved to San Francisco. Only now that Sawang owns the restaurant does mother allow daughter near the stove.
Sawang initially moved to San Francisco in her 20s to learn English. She met Phill when he was eating at the diner where she worked. The pair married and moved East to be closer to Phill’s family in Rochester.
Appetizers, almost always prepared by Yai, include Thai favorites like curry puffs and chicken satay with peanut sauce. Som Tum, or papaya salad, is a star of the menu, combining shredded green papaya, lime, tomatoes, shredded carrots, and ground peanuts, tossed in the namesake spicy lime dressing. The papaya’s texture is similar to noodles, with a slight crunch. Both sweet and sour flavors emerge from the dressing, which has a heavy dose of lime.
Gyoza (dumplings) and sticky wings are two of the richer menu items, boasting crispy, hot, rib-sticking fare. The half-moon-shaped dumplings envelop pork and diced vegetables and the fried shell soaks up a soy-ginger dipping sauce. The dumplings look homemade with free-form crimping around the edges. The sticky wings exude flavors of lemongrass, cilantro, and garlic with a sweet, sticky sauce that demands finger licking.
Aesthetically, the lettuce wraps are the most impressive addition to the table. A large, asymmetrical plate holds six vibrantly colored lettuce wraps surrounding a bowl of peanut sauce. Each wrap cradles grilled chicken, grated carrots, chopped peanuts, and a healthy amount of cilantro, cucumber, and pickled onions — a true layering of Thai flavors.
The pad see ew consists of pan-fried flat noodles with bits of golden scrambled egg, carrots, yellow squash rounds, tender baby corn, and broccoli florets to soak up the light sauce. Most entrees offer a choose-your-own-heat adventure. The always-safe choice of medium spiciness is not overwhelming, so chili lovers might select a higher level. Each dish comes on a different-shaped plate and beverages arrive in red and orange plastic glasses, which give a retro feel. Dining at Spicy Lime is much like having a casual meal at a friend’s house while her mom prepares your lunch in the kitchen.
The restaurant offers mostly local wine and beer from neighboring towns. A bright orange sign frames the Spicy Lime logo, as welcoming as the smiling couple that keep it going. On any given night, Lita Sawang mans the door while her husband serves up the produce of New Bedford and other towns in a California-Thai medley. “If the door is open, I am at the restaurant,” Lita says. “If I’m not, I must be really sick.”
Spicy Lime 522 Pleasant St., New Bedford, 508-992-3330.