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Bamboo Garden, 9201 North 29th Avenue, Phoenix, 944-2388. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday.
A lawyer's task is to make sure justice prevails. But the quest for justice becomes a lot more satisfying after the client agrees to fork over one-third of the settlement.
An equally noble purpose drives restaurant reviewers: steering diners to meals of quality and value. But unlike the practitioners of the law, I can't extract a reader fee for providing this service. Instead, I count on tasty memories for my reward.
I'm not complaining. Especially now, when I'm in the midst of recalling uncommonly pleasant Asian meals I recently had at Bamboo Garden and China Legend. Open less than a year, Bamboo Garden is in a satellite strip location just south of Metrocenter, the kind that isn't likely to divert the zillions of cars streaming into the mall parking lot just ahead. And even if you do turn off and poke your head in, the warehouse-size room seems like an unpromising place to fill up. There's not much decorative charm, except for a big-screen television hooked into high-decibel stereo speakers broadcasting prime-time drivel. It overpowers the serene effects of a couple of Thai wall paintings. But when I saw the table set with intricately folded, green linen napkins in the shape of a three-sailed ship, with the fork sticking out the bottom like a rudder, I took heart. After all, if someone's going to all that trouble to fold napkins, I figured, maybe someone's also paying the same kind of attention to the food. Someone is. Bamboo Garden serves up excellent, fresh-tasting Thai fare. And check out this tempting weekend feature: Laotian specialties, dishes you can't find elsewhere in the Valley. The restaurant's Thai meals get off to a fast start when you order soup. No ethnic broth, not even chicken soup, toward which I'm genetically predisposed, packs the power and flavor of Thai models. And Bamboo Garden's hot pots are wonderful, perfect for chilly Valley winter evenings. Po tek is essentially a fish soup, packed with shrimp, mussels, fish and squid, all divinely seasoned with distinctive Thai ingredients--lemon grass, galangal (ginger), lime leaf, coriander and chile paste. It sets off a robust flavor explosion. Tom kha kai, a chicken-based soup, is in the same class. The key here is coconut milk, which imparts a velvety richness and mildness to the broth. I generally have nothing to do with Thai appetizers--they're not remotely as interesting as the main dishes. Egg rolls, Thai toast and fried won tons waste precious belly room. But I'd make an exception for Bamboo Garden's barbecued half-chicken, hacked into four meaty pieces. Peppery, garlicky and juicy, it's good to the bone. I'm impressed by the entrees here: portion size, price and taste. The kitchen is adept at blending textures and flavors--sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter--key elements of Thai cuisine. Take the pad Thai, the national noodle dish. The version here is as good as I've run across lately. Stir-fried rice noodles are thrown together with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, egg, green onions, ground peanuts and chiles, all scented with that ubiquitous Thai fish sauce, nam pla, made from fermented anchovies. The soft noodles, crunchy sprouts and three-dimensional blend of flavors make this a dish to savor. Garlic shrimp is also right on target. Eight medium-size specimens come pan-fried in belligerent amounts of garlic and black pepper. A side of crunchy cabbage provides the right foil for the tender shrimp. If you're looking for hot, fasten your seat belts for the keng ped. Borrowed from India but distinctively Thai, it's a red curry dish that can leave you gasping, if that's how you instruct the kitchen. Look for pork, lots of bamboo shoots and a few crunchy green beans smoothed over with sharp, smooth, chile-packed curry.
Pad krapao furnishes a refreshing antidote to the Thai curry. It's chicken soothed with fresh mint and basil, and it should staunch the flow of smoke coming out of your ears. So will the innocuous Thai-style fried rice, a dish best-suited to hesitant first-timers.
Five Laotian dishes gild the menu on weekends, and three of them form a mealtime unit. The first is One Sun Beef, strips of beef set in a sweet-spicy marinade, then dried and deep-fried. At first glance, it may remind you of beef jerky, but there's no confusing this surprisingly tender beef with rubbery domestic models. The meat is designed to be eaten with sticky, crusty rice. A woman came out of the kitchen to show us how they do it in Southeast Asia: Grab a strip of meat with your hand, then plunge it into the rice. Roll up the rice and meat into a ball in your fist, then pop it in your mouth. The third element is papaya salad. But anyone expecting sweet, juicy chunks of fruit atop greenery is in for a surprise. Instead, you get tart green papaya strips dispersed among shredded carrot and cabbage, all dressed with lots of garlic and chile pepper. It's different, and, depending on your adventure level, fun.