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Though I have yet to visit Siam, I have lived in the next best place for Thai cuisine: Los Angeles. In La-La Land, there are nearly as many Thai restaurants as there are taquerias in Phoenix, and I became so accustomed to that country's unique mélange of spicy, sweet-and-sour flavors that living without them for an extended period of time almost drives me to snort cardamom and smoke lemongrass.
This is not to diss my new hometown. Obviously, we cannot expect the Pacific Rim in the Sonoran Desert, but we must do everything in our power to encourage an Asian presence in our city. Maybe we need some sort of incentive program to encourage more Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Thais to immigrate to our dry metropolis. I assure you that, for starters, our tummies will be the beneficiaries.
Imagine, then, my initial delight upon the opening of a Thai place on Central Avenue, sandwiched between two staples of Phoenix dining, Jordan's Mexican restaurant and the estimable Durant's chophouse. There it was beneath a big, purple sign, The Wild Thaiger. And it bills itself as offering a "culinary adventure" to Southeast Asia.
2631 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Region: Central Phoenix
602-241-8995. Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
The reality turns out to be slightly tamer than advertised, however. Its chef/owner Olashawn Hasadinratana Weaver, 39, is the sister of Chai Hasadinratana, the chef/owner of Scottsdale's Thai Thai. The siblings come from a family of restaurant owners, and so were raised with Thai cooking. However, Weaver, who was brought up mostly in Colorado, points out that her intent is not to represent authentic Thai cuisine so much as to introduce more Phoenicians to the flavors of her native Bangkok.
"I want people to have an adventurous spirit and come in and try something different," the energetic, effusive Weaver told me recently as we sat outside on the restaurant's expansive front patio, with its pistachio-painted stucco and white ceiling fans. "My mom had restaurants in Thailand, so all of the flavors and taste come from my mom. But I don't say I'm totally authentic Thai, because I have too many American friends who I want to get in here."
To judge by the crowds in the evenings and for lunch, The Wild Thaiger's business plan is working. And Weaver's done a magnificent job of decorating the interior of her establishment, which is dominated by a gleaming, open kitchen that's in turn surrounded by an ultra-urban interior design. A split floor pattern of sautillo and gray tiles and walls shaded green and plum are accented by a tasteful array of Thai curios and crafts, such as the emerald-and-gold-hued Thai angels seated on the long wooden bar that overlooks the kitchen.
As for the menu, Weaver nails some traditional items dead-on. The syrupy sweet Thai iced tea with half-and-half is as good as any you'll get in L.A., and the pad Thai -- stir-fried rice noodles with crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken and tofu all mixed together -- is topnotch. Her peanut sauce, which covers skewers of tofu, chicken or beef satay, is different from others I've had, almost like a chutney with plenty of tamarind mixed in with the peanut paste, but I quite enjoyed it, especially since it challenged my expectations in a positive way.
Perhaps the best appetizer Weaver has on her bill of fare is the veggie sampler, which normally I would not go for, being as committed a carnivore as even The Wild Thaiger's feline mascot. But on the suggestion of my lovely Thai waitress, the superb and graceful Muay, I selected the platter and was quite pleased with its offerings of veggie spring rolls with plum sauce, tofu satay and corn fritters, the last of these being a simple recipe of a special batter and corn kernels that were magnifique! I could have sucked a whole bushel of those brownish-yellow lumps down my esophagus if given the opportunity.
But what really disappointed me on my outings to the restaurant was the quality of the beef and the chicken. I'm guessing there must be some problem with Weaver's supplier, but I would encourage her to see to it pronto, as both beef and fowl play such a big role in several of her dishes. The chicken, whether in the satay skewers, the pad Thai, the curry or the "peanut passion" (medallions of chicken topped with her peanut sauce), was uniformly dry and bland. And the beef in one of her eatery's signature dishes, the beef filet and green papaya salad, was equally flavorless, almost rubbery, even. Though, in this last case, the crispy rice fritters that came with the meal offered some recompense for this oddly mediocre cow flesh.
I did admire her seafood panang, a reddish-orange curry using those little Thai chiles to the extent it might have burned a hole in the tabletop, through the floor and all the way to the Gulf of Thailand itself. It came drenched over an array of saltwater edibles -- mussels, calamari, shrimp and salmon, to name a few -- and was served with a compact mound of glutinous rice. The panang totally overpowered the seafood (which, as far as I could tell, tasted fresh enough), and I didn't mind a bit. Unfortunately, the same was not true of the kalee gai, or chicken in yellow curry, where the poor quality of the clucker was not outweighed by the tastiness of the curry.
Alas, one other appetizer I must pause to knock before turning my attention to the sweets is the chicken lettuce wrap. Here the fact that the bird was diced and copious amounts of Thai spices had been added obscured any blandness of the chicken. So my quibble was not so much with the bird itself, but with the lettuce used as a wrap. Iceberg lettuce? I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm completely prejudiced when it comes to the most insipid, boring head of lettuce on the market, and one completely unsuited to any sort of salad or wrap as far as I'm concerned. Cheaper it may be, but red-leaf lettuce and Chinese cabbage are far superior in that they actually have some character. Be assured that when yours truly is made the Culinary Caligula of this city, iceberg lettuce will be banned.
As to the desserts, Weaver is on firm footing, particularly when one sticks to such old country faves as coconut ice cream with crushed peanuts. And then there's the Thai classic: sweet mango and warm sticky rice. This was good, but not great. The rice should be even stickier and sweeter from its coconut milk, but that's a minor quibble. If you've never tried it before, you really should give it a go.
Ultimately, my advice to the chef is, live up to your restaurant's name and get wilder! Her tiger is, if not toothless, dentally impaired. No doubt the average Phoenician, for whom Thai food may be somewhat of an adventure, will not be scared away by the tame fare, but please, please give us Asia-philes a cuisine to hang onto. Be authentic and you will be surprised at how loyal your fan base will become.