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Royal Barge, 8140 North Hayden Road, Scottsdale, 480-443-1953. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
If my nose starts to run by the third bite, I know that I'm eating real Thai food. Spicy hot, tangy, pungent, sour and aromatic are the characteristic flavors of Thai cuisine. There's a good chance that the kitchen is cooking something less than authentic if you have to ask for a dish to be spiced up.
One of my pet peeves is ethnic food that is toned down in an attempt to second-guess uninitiated palates. Those palates often belong to the people eating with chopsticks in a Thai restaurant. In Thailand, forks and knives are the norm. Asia is a large continent with myriad cuisines and customs.
8140 N. Hayden Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85258-4340
Region: North Scottsdale
Thankfully, our taste buds have discovered the joys of diversity. Ethnic markets attract chefs and curious novice cooks. We perk up our comfort foods with ethnic accents. Even the fast-food market is dominated by ethnic influences -- such as pizza and tacos.
Why, then, do so many ethnic restaurants seem to cook for the land of the blah and the home of the bland?
Royal Barge has all the elements to cook up first-rate Thai cuisine. Authentic quality ingredients, a pleasant environment and a friendly, knowledgeable staff usually add up to something more than average.
Once seated, you'll notice an eclectic collection of Thai embroidered wall hangings, glass barges and Asian antiquities. It's a combination that's a bit amusing.
My favorite objet d'art is a framed picture of the king and queen of Thailand. A multicolor plastic garland spans the length of the picture, like a velvet rope separating the royals and us common folk. You can't miss it. He's dressed in a uniform and big sunglasses, kind of a cross between Elvis and an admiral. She's in a Thai dress, and her extended hands are full of jewels, as if to indicate benevolence.
In some ways, this picture is a metaphor for the Royal Barge experience. Thailand beckons, but Western influences muddle the effect. The staging is somehow mediocre.
Actually, a meal at Royal Barge is better than mediocre -- if you know enough to order your food in the medium-hot range. Otherwise, you'll be eating something less than Thai.
An asterisk denotes the spicy dishes at Royal Barge. I was surprised that the server asked if we wanted these dishes spicy. Why else would I order a spicy dish?
My favorite item on the menu is the chicken coconut soup. It's infused with the flavors that make Thai food special, and I ordered it on two separate visits.
The coconut refers to coconut milk, a common ingredient in Thai cuisine. It's rich without being heavy and adds delicate, sweet undertones.
Lime leaves, lemongrass, chiles and ginger round out the spectrum of flavors in this wonderful soup. Note: The lime leaves, ginger and lemongrass are for flavor and looks. Don't eat them.
Mushrooms and chunks of white-meat chicken generously dot the brothy liquid. On one occasion, the chicken was a bit overcooked, but otherwise this soup is a standout.
Another excellent way to start your meal is with the fresh soft rolls. Steamed shrimp, tender pork and rice noodles are wrapped in delicate, see-through rice paper with mint, basil and lettuce. There's no doubt the soft rolls are made to order, because the greens are crisp and chilled, while the meat and noodles are warm. This is a pleasing, cool-warm yin-yang.
The peanut hoisin dipping sauce adds a salty, sweet nuance to the fresh roll. (Peanuts are an important ingredient in Thai cooking.) If the overly thick sauce had been thinned with a little rice vinegar, fish sauce, or even simple syrup, the consistency would have been just right.
It will take more than a little tweak to turn the steamed combo into a winner. It's a combination of four appetizers, only one of which is worth a second bite. The shumai (delicate stuffed dumplings) fill your mouth with tender minced chicken, crunchy bits of vegetables and a gentle tang of salt.
As far as I could tell, the little dab of overcooked meat in the pot stickers was the same filling as in the shumai. Press this filling around a shrimp, overcook it a little and you get a shrimp paddle. Wrap it around a chicken wing and you get a crown stick. To me, a combo means different foods, not one food shaped four different ways.
There are times when it's okay for a restaurant to use the same preparation in multiple recipes. For example, the same sauce might go well with chicken, pork and seafood. Royal Barge uses its curries in this fashion.
The red curry is particularly good. It's made with red chile paste and coconut milk. I had it with beef, and on another occasion with seafood.
When I ordered the red curried beef, a menu item with an asterisk, I did not specify how hot I wanted it. The beef was sliced thin, fork-tender and cooked to perfection. The bamboo shoots added a pleasant crunch. Unfortunately, the red curry, although tasty, was mild enough for someone on an ulcer diet.