By Heather Hoch
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We're picking things out of our tom yum soup at Jax Thai Bar, a Tempe restaurant that's the newest addition to Mill Avenue's increasingly cosmopolitan culinary scene. Barklike nubs of galangal, a southeast Asian vegetable that's a member of the ginger family. Whole kaffir lime leaves, dark green and similar to bay leaves. Long stalks of lemon grass, the perennial plant of tropical Asia. Residue piles up like colorful kindling next to our soup bowls.
It's an odd presentation -- usually these potent spices would be powdered, or at least strained out before serving. The pumpkin-orange soup is stocked with chunks of chicken breast and sliced mushrooms and served in a large metal pot centered by a propane burner. We're sitting just inside the front door; when it opens, the breeze whips in and flames char our cheeks.
The fancy tricks are an important component of this hip restaurant. When Jax debuted this summer, it promised to bring something different to our local Thai dining landscape. Catering to an easily bored clientele of yuppies, Gen X'ers and Y's, Jax needed to put a novel twist on a cuisine that's invaded America so profusely over the last several years that in food-savvy cities like L.A., it's hardly even considered ethnic.
Thai prawns: $17
Pork and coconut noodles: $9
Pad Thai: $10
Fried bananas: $7 480-921-8800. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; dinner, Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.; full appetizer service daily until 12:30 a.m.
Jax has succeeded with stylish service and good looks. There's a lot of sophistication packed into a small space, with exposed brick walls, a sleek bar and lounge and retro-modern decor with lots of red and black. There's another, more private lounge upstairs, looking over the crowd beneath 20-foot ceilings. Guests can grab a tall table or settle at the dining counter in front of the exposed kitchen to watch the chefs slice and dice.
Jax, too, is turning heads with its attitude. Thai food is hot, as in spicy. But here, it's called "atomic." In a chichi kind of "we dare you" taunt, dishes can be prepared in increasing levels that, at the max, will leave scorch marks on your tongue. Drinks aren't just drinks, they're "high performance cocktails." And most entrees arrive in small black bowls, with small plates alongside. Whether it's intentional or not, the bowls have a dual benefit -- they don't hog much space on Jax's too-tiny tables, and they keep the food warm longer than the usual, flat-plate presentation. The individual dishes of rice served with meals are nice touches, too.
It's all quite trendy, big-city and boisterous. Keep in mind -- this is not your typical family-friendly Thai joint. Lunch is quiet, but dinner is loud and dark, packed with the young, beautiful and restless. After the food service stops at 10 p.m., the place turns into a pulsating nightclub.
Happily, however, Jax owner Julian Wright has stopped the trendiness at the ambiance. The food here is basic Thai, and at times, it's dynamically delicious. Although his background consists of managing chain restaurants, Wright appears to have taken every cheap trick he must have learned there and promptly forgotten it -- ingredients are high-quality, fresh and cooked to order.
Once we dispose of the debris, the tom yum is terrific. Ordered at regular heat level, it's spicy enough to be considered hot at most other Thai places, prancing on the back and sides of the tongue. Woon sen is much milder, tossing clear-as-glass bean thread noodles in an aromatic broth of scallions, garlic, white pepper and cilantro, jumbled with chicken, snow peas, baby corn and carrot. This isn't first-date food, though -- it's virtually impossible to eat the noodles, so long and slippery they demand scissors.
Appetizers are served until 12:30 a.m. every day, and some are worth battling the loud techno music and party crowd for a late-night snack. The chicken rice wrap is particularly satisfying, with a burrito-size roll of feather-light rice paper stuffed with ginger lime-dressed shredded green leaf lettuce, salty shredded chicken breast, julienne cucumber, mint, basil, carrot threads, rice noodles and mung bean sprouts. Spunk comes from dipping sauces of kaffir/yellow curry, mint/cilantro cream and plum.
One of Thailand's most familiar dishes is satay, considered street food. Jax's version puts it in an upscale neighborhood, with large slabs of chicken breast or slightly chewy steak seasoned with yellow curry, coconut milk and coriander, then grilled on bamboo skewers. Many places dump satay unceremoniously on a plate, but here it comes splayed prettily on top of a pineapple half, the fruit's insides diced and grilled. Peanut sauce is a mainstay of good satay; this one is so nicely nutty it's reminiscent of melted, caramelized peanut butter. The "cool Thai cucumber" dip, though, is just boring, a sweet-and-sour sauce with cucumber bits.
There's not much excitement in vegetarian spring rolls, either, a generic plate of bean thread noodles, carrot, celery and cabbage tucked into won ton wrappers and deep fried. Instead, turn to Thai-style baked wings, a half-dozen meaty drumettes marinated in soy, hoisin, coriander, curry and lemon grass, then baked. They're grilled upon ordering, and served with truly spicy coconut glaze.
For horrific heat, though, nothing so endearingly sears as keao wan, ordered at atomic level. Holy bejesus. The thin green curry is liquid fire on its own; at atomic, it's painful to eat. Sure, my server warns me it'll be hot, but how many restaurants around town promise that, then send out a wussy smattering of chiles? Be warned: The friendly, efficient staff speaks the truth. My choice of puffed tofu mingles with skinny green beans, bell pepper, water chestnuts and zucchini in the coconut-based sauce topped with fresh basil, but I lose all taste sensation after just a few bites. This dish, at this heat level, is notfor amateurs.