There are, of course, Thai curries — colorful, dizzyingly aromatic, and more soup-like than their thicker Indian cousins. Served in pretty, elongated dishes, the red was my favorite, its tender chunks of chicken, bamboo shoots, green beans, and Thai eggplant and herbs eliciting a rich, savory flavor, with a balanced heat that flushed my cheeks to a similar hue. The milder pa-naeng was disappointing because of a heavy dose of kaffir lime leaves and dry chunks of beef, and the chu-chee, rusty red with a spicy bite, was delicious but unable to save the overcooked whole red snapper it covered.

For an affordable sampling, you can't beat the $7.77 buffet from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day but Saturday, but for a unique (and at times daring) gastronomical adventure, stick with the E-San-style dishes. They are, in a word, hardcore.

Originating in Laos, the tamest of these dishes is the meat salad called larb. Served at room temperature, mine — made with minced beef flavored with fish sauce and herbs and mixed with chile, onions, and bits of nutty, toasted rice — was satisfyingly spicy, with a strong presence of lime and hints of mint. For those wanting a similar taste but with their beef cut into strips rather than minced, try the Thai E-San beef salad prepared with a few green Thai chiles peeking out from the marinated meat, just to keep things interesting. And, sure, the Thai E-San pork sausage certainly looks a bit like the Western version, but the similarities end there. The intense flavor of pungent lime and whip-crack heat were enough to make the inside of my mouth vibrate.

Traditional dishes from northeastern Thailand mean bold flavors at Pete's Thai Cuisine.
Jackie Mercandetti
Traditional dishes from northeastern Thailand mean bold flavors at Pete's Thai Cuisine.

Location Info

Map

E-San Sab Sab Thai Cuisine (Pete's Thai Cuisine)

12032 N. Cave Creek Road
Phoenix, AZ 85020

Category: Restaurant > Buffet

Region: North Phoenix

Details

Pete's Thai Cuisine
12032 North Cave Creek Road
602-674-9999
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Buffet: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily (except Saturday)

Tom yum with chicken: $9.95
Larb: $9.95
Papaya salad: $10.95
Seafood combo with curry: $14.95

For the truly brave, there is the papaya salad with crab and stinky fish. When my dining companion insisted we order it, and order it as a five on the 1 to 5 heat index, there was little I could do to dissuade her, but then I doubted much would. Having been raised in northeastern Thailand, she moved to the Valley in 1974, when Thai restaurants were as rare as rain and she made most everything on Pete's menu at home. The woman clearly knew what she was doing. (And with her telling me about her current obsession with guns and a purchase of her very own M-15, who was I to argue?)

I give her credit for smiling only slightly upon witnessing my first bite of the slightly tart, grated papaya strips mixed with juicy tomatoes and crunchy beans that, without warning, was followed by a hell-hot, stinging heat courtesy of slices of red Thai chiles, then an intense fish flavor from the sauce of pieces of salty crab and fermented fish poking up from the plate. My expression must have been priceless.

"It's good, huh?" she said.

"Wow," I whispered, managing to half open one of my tightened, tear-filled eyes.

That's when she laughed.

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