Cramming for Finals

Don't neglect the hamburger. This juicy patty is fashioned from a half-pound of sirloin and comes with French fries so good your tablemates will be reaching over to "help" you finish them.

Maybe we were too full to appreciate it, but dessert doesn't seem to have quite the flair of the other courses. The amaretto cheesecake is routine, while the creme brulee tastes more like butterscotch pudding with a burnt-sugar glaze.

Paradise Bar & Grill targets both grown-ups and the college crowd, and manages to hit both marks with a bit of style. That's enough to set it apart from most of your run-of-the-Mill Avenue restaurants.

Char's Thai Restaurant, 927 East University, Tempe, 967-6013. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Char's has been dishing out Thai food in Tempe for nearly 15 years, long before redevelopment was even a twinkle in some city planner's eye.

After making my way through the menu, I'd say Char's is in some need of redevelopment itself.

Now, bad Thai food simply can't exist. How can any cuisine whose dishes rely on the irresistible scents of lemongrass, galangal, lime leaf, coconut milk and hot red and green chiles be anything but appealing?

The problem is, Char's has been doing this for so long, its kitchen seems to be operating on autopilot. I expect Thai food to soar. But most of Char's offerings don't gather up enough speed to get off the ground.

Visually, the place is a hoot, with a Bangkok-meets-the-Old West theme. Gleaming red booths, native-land artifacts, pictures of Thai royalty and pagoda-patterned wallpaper compete with lighted-up wagon wheels lined across the wall.

But while the setting is eye-opening, the painfully lackluster fare isn't. The Sterno-fired soups set the tone. No country on the planet does soup better than Thailand, but you'd be hard-pressed to make that point after sampling the two models we ordered. The hot-and-sour shrimp soup sported five shrimp, scallions and lame, sliced white mushrooms, and the broth was seasoned by all the usual suspects. But this soup had no energy. Neither did tom kha gai, a chicken soup whose coconut-milk base was way too thin.

Appetizers don't offer many thrills, either. When I ordered number 16, koong kha bok, the waitress tried to talk me out of it. "Most people don't like it," she said. "Are you sure you want it?" After that ringing endorsement, you bet I did.

It turned out to be a big platter of battered, deep-fried stuff: pork and shrimp on a skewer; broccoli; mushrooms; carrot; and green pepper. If it weren't for the red-chile dipping sauce, you'd have thought it had wandered in from a sports-bar kitchen.

Another starter, yum pla meurk, promised thinly sliced squid. Instead, we got big, rubbery chunks, although the pungent mint, chile and lime dressing made the chewing much more palatable. Meanwhile, nothing about the mee krob--a sweet, crispy noodle platter touched up with shrimp, pork and egg--gave any indication why it's probably Thailand's most famous dish.

Main dishes brought further disappointment. A yellow-curry special combined bits of prefab-looking chicken with onion and hard, undercooked potatoes. And the one-dimensional yellow-curry sauce had none of the fabled Thai complexity I yearned for. An egg noodle dish, #29, couldn't excite us, either, done in by too little barbecue pork, too many desultory pieces of "krab" and almost no flavor. The menu's most expensive offering, panang seafood, provided more evidence that this kitchen simply isn't trying very hard. For $13.95, we got some chewy squid, a few shrimp and anonymous shards of fish, tossed with a ton of green pepper. And my expectations were way too high for its sauce, which had scarcely a trace of the promised basil, coconut milk and peanut accents.

Another sign of Char's lethargy is the out-of-date takeout menu. One dish that caught my eye for a future in-house visit was #39, karw pad suppa-rode. It sounded great: "Exotic pineapple fried rice, served in a pineapple shell. The fruit is scooped from inside and fried with shrimp, chicken, cashew nuts and rice, then returned to the shell and baked before serving."

But when I asked about it, the waitress said they hadn't served it for years. All Char's now offers is a cafeteria-quality fried-rice plate, heaped with canned pineapple and a spoonful of tired-looking chicken and shrimp.

A few dishes pass muster. Green beans tossed with pork had some of the sprightly Thai flavors I'd missed elsewhere. So did the khad yud sai, a Thai version of egg foo yung, an omelet tastily stuffed with ground beef, red pepper and veggies. And the pad Thai, thin fried noodles topped with ground peanuts, managed to show a bit of vigor.

Time seems to have passed Char's by. Until the restaurant catches up, so should you.

Paradise Bar & Grill:
Onion rings
$4.75
Sirloin burger
5.95
Octopus noodle salad
7.95
Jambalaya
12.95

Char's Thai Restaurant:
Hot-and-sour shrimp soup
$7.95
Pad Thai
6.95
Green beans and pork
6.95
Chicken yellow curry
7.95

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