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Some meals are meant to be solo adventures, reserved reflections on flavors executed with slow, thoughtful bites in the quietude of an intimate setting.
This was not one of them.
The thought occurred to me when the steaming sticky rice arrived in a small bamboo basket. Like children suddenly permitted to play with their food, my guests and I excitedly passed the container around, joyfully plucking out chunks of the gummy rice, wrapping them around pieces of pork jerky, and popping the pairing into our mouths. Chewing slowly, we let the sweetness of the dried, marinated meat take the edge off the lingering effects from earlier bites of spicy papaya salad.
12032 N. Cave Creek Road
Phoenix, AZ 85020
Region: North Phoenix
"Ahhh," somebody said. It was probably me. There was a burst of laughter. And for a moment, we grinned at each other like owners of a shared secret: We had found Pete Pholtosa's newest Thai restaurant — and this was not to be a solemn event.
The former owner of Siam in Glendale and, more recently, Thai E-San in Central Phoenix, Pete (or, in Thai, Tossapis) Pholtosa's newest venture, simply called Pete's Thai Cuisine (no relation to Phoenix's infamous Pete's Fish 'n' Chips, I can assure you), is three months old. Pholtosa's food tells the story of his life in the Nakhoyn Phanom province in northeastern Thailand and distinguishes Pete's from other Thai restaurants in the Valley by featuring traditional dishes from his hometown. Given their uniqueness and bold flavors, this may mean finding a new favorite or defining the limits of what your palate can handle. In either case, it's worth stopping by to find out.
And when you do stop by, after pulling up to the plain, painted-brick building, you'll find the interior of Pete's nicer than you'd expect. The room is brightly lit and clean, the walls swathed in lustrous gold and red paint, and the floor a shiny purple with stenciled designs. Here, amid the wraparound bar (BYOB for now) and tables topped with white linens and live flora, the unusual mix of Pete's patrons — from young couples to rough riders to middle-aged folks — sip sweet, creamy Thai tea in tall, curvy glasses while Thai music videos play on a small TV, and the aromas of lemongrass, fish sauce, and grilling meat hang thick in the air.
Pholtosa is a one-man show, so expect to wait when his restaurant is busy. On one of my visits, it took an excruciating hour and a half to get our food, a wait, my pleasant server assured me, that would not happen again.
Pholtosa's offerings include classic Thai cuisine as well as specific dishes from northeastern Thailand, which, given the region's shared border with Laos, translates to fresh, crunchy greens and vegetables and a focus on ingredients such as lemongrass, fish sauce, mint, and galangal, a cooking herb related to ginger, but with a pungent, medicinal flavor. Dig deeper and you'll find comfort food dishes you may not find elsewhere, including noodle soup and Thai spaghetti (rice noodles with a spicy sauce, vegetables, and sweet chunks of mango and watermelon served only on Pete's lunch buffet, and only sometimes). Nods to the simple, satisfying food typically served in Pholtosa's hometown, they may lead those in the know to wax nostalgic.
Thai meals are share-friendly, so it made sense when the appetizers followed suit, with the portion sizes an indication of entrées to come. There are average egg rolls and spring rolls, better chicken satay, and exceptional fried wontons and triangles of Thai toast, both made with ground pork. But the Thai fish cakes were the standout. Fried and flecked with bits of yardlong beans and kaffir lime leaves, their bouncy texture, even heat, and well-seasoned flavor were as popular with my table as the Thai sweet chili sauce they were served with.
And when it comes to sauces and condiments, Pholtosa's homemade array of them, served tableside or available at the bar, are worth a dip or two. Along with the sweet chili and peanut sauces, there are small bowls filled with chili peppers in rice vinegar, dried chili flakes, whole Thai peppers, spicy prik nam pla (made with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and chopped chiles), and a refreshing cucumber, onion, and green chile concoction that cools the mouth after a particularly spicy dish. Trying one with an appetizer or a ball of sticky rice is an enjoyable flavor journey worth taking.
It is said that tom yum (lemongrass) soup is one of the world's most delicious foods, and at Pete's — where it is served bubbling in an elevated metal moat surrounding an open flame — it does not disappoint. The broth, colorfully brimming with mushrooms, strips of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, pale pieces of galangal, crushed chile peppers, and chunks of chicken, provides a hot-and-sour flavor that could warm even the coldest soul.
And if you prefer your soups on the fishy side, order the seafood combo with hot and sour curry. Heavy on the fish sauce, spicy, and swimming with shrimp, clams, chunks of fish, and mussels, this aromatic broth comes with a warning if you are bringing home leftovers: Don't spill it in the car.