Chon Thai Food has been open for only about four months, but already the East Valley restaurant seems to be a neighborhood draw. At the height of a recent Saturday dinner service, a huddle of restless customers crowded around the host stand near the restaurant's entrance, while a skeleton crew of servers wrangled dirty dishes and wiped down tables at breakneck speed to make room for the fresh wave of diners. It was the busiest Saturday night to date for Chon Thai, the host on duty remarked, chuckling nervously as a line began to curl out the front door.
Getting a table at Chon Thai on a busy Saturday night, then, may require patience. The modest neighborhood spot, located in a desolate Chandler strip mall, isn't much bigger than your neighborhood Starbucks. It's a low-key space, decorated with a modern, minimalist aesthetic that relies on a handful of elegant Buddhist wall hangings to produce ambiance. But the space is pleasingly lit and intimate enough so that after a while, it's easy to forget you're sitting in the middle of a sleepy strip mall. But more important, once you've landed a table, and once you've put in your order, the food tends to come out quickly — and most often in an eye-pleasing array of coconut-marbled curries, fried rice platters, and noodle stir-fries, some of these shimmering with fresh-off-the-wok heat and decorated with whorls of bright purple beet shavings and wedges of fresh citrus.
Chon Thai Food specializes in what you might call mainstream Thai fare. At its heart, it's the kind of old school Thai restaurant where the dishes are infinitely customizable (chicken, beef, or shrimp — it's your choice) and the spiciness of the food is measured by a scale of chile peppers printed at the top of the laminated menu. The sprawling menu has pretty much everything you could ask for in a neighborhood Thai spot, which is to say you'll find credible renditions of mainstays like pad Thai and pad see-ew, along with a few harder-to-find regional dishes. And like all good neighborhood spots, it doesn't take long for you to trust the kitchen, which radiates a certain consistency of quality. You come here with the confidence that the chicken coconut soup you had last Tuesday for lunch will be as good as the one you're about to slurp down tonight. Because whether you come on a slow Sunday afternoon or during the weekday lunch rush (Chon Thai offers several popular $5.99 weekday lunch specials), chances are the food will be vibrant, fresh, and delicious.
Appetizers, all of which are quite good, include traditional Thai street snacks such as chicken satay, fried tofu, and crispy chicken spring rolls stuffed with ground chicken and a savory onion-and-carrot mash. But if you're keen on sweet and sour soups, you'll want to start with a top-notch bowl of the house tom yum, a tangy soup lavished with red chiles and lemongrass. The broth is just spicy enough to get the blood flowing, with hunks of mushrooms giving the dish a nice, earthy balance.
Isan cuisine, the food of northeastern Thailand, is hard to find around metro Phoenix, but you can get a small taste of the region's fiery, rustic salads with an order of larb gai. The meat-heavy salad features finely minced chicken blended with a spicy mix of Thai spices, including chile, basil, and lime, and laced through with toasted rice. It's a blazingly hot and delicious dish.
If you ask a server for an entrée recommendation, there's a good chance you'll be directed to the crispy garlic chicken, a house specialty at Chon Thai. You'd be wise to take this tip and run with it. It's an unusually good plate of garlicky stir-fried chicken, glazed in a sweet orange sauce and layered with improbable quantities of deep-fried leaves of Thai basil that add subtle, herb-scented crunch.
Another house specialty is the chicken pumpkin curry, a nutty and spicy curry tempered with coconut milk and flavored with galangal. Big, meaty chunks of kabocha squash lends a pleasing sweetness to the plate, and slivers of chicken breast soak up the curry for a dish that's both silky and light and hearty and rustic.
Chon Thai is far from a noodle joint, but the kitchen obliges the widespread demand for Thai-style noodles with a small selection of stir-fries and soups, including a fine pad Thai and drunken beef. One of the tastiest noodle-based dishes is the house beef soup. The slippery rice noodles are soaked in a clear broth, which is redolent with the savory, pervasive flavor of roasted garlic. Another stir-fry dish, Chon Thai egg noodles, offers up a tangle of stringy noodles in a sweet fish sauce, with a smattering of shrimp and ground chicken. It's simple but also quite good.
Basil fried rice with beef can be enjoyed either as a hearty side, or a main. Either way, it's hard to resist. The rice is tossed with green beans, onions, red bell pepper, and succulent strips of beef, all wrapped in a basil and chile sauce that livens up what might have otherwise been a dull dish.
For something a bit lighter, there's eggplant basil shrimp, a mostly veggie stir-fry with a modest ration of medium-size shrimp. What's most remarkable about the dish is the plump eggplant, which is given a quick, expert toss in the wok so that the meaty slices come out swollen and glistening with heat, soaked through in a delectable and spicy garlic sauce.
Panang curry, meanwhile, requested at the four-star spiciness level "Thai hot," is a thick, spicy, and intensely flavored dish. The curry, marbled with coconut milk and flavored with hunks of juicy beef, green beans, and zucchini, delivers a sweet hit of peanut sauce to give the dish a nice mellow roundness.
Like most casual Thai spots, there are only a couple of options on the menu for dessert. The kitchen offers a fried banana served with ice cream, along with a plate of sweet sticky rice with fresh mango. The latter, a classic Thai-Lao sweet, is a milky, glutinous treat. The rice is roughly molded into a heart shape, topped with black sesame seeds, and served with spears of fresh mango. You hardly could ask for a more pleasant way to cool down the palate after a feast of Thai-hot curries.
Chon Thai may not be the best place to discover uncommon Thai fare — you won't find regional Thai fare like salads spiked with offal bits or crispy fish omelets, for example. But when you're in the mood for well-prepared coconut chicken curries or pad Thai, you'd be hard-pressed to find many other suburban Thai restaurants doing it this well, and for so little. Very few dishes are priced higher than $10, and with the exception of the occasional Saturday night hiccup, service is fast, accommodating, and exceedingly polite. A meal at Chon Thai (which is owned and managed by two generations of the Sukprung family) is often so cozy and pleasant that the simple experience of dining here may leave you feeling slightly more gracious and relaxed than you were when you walked in. And how many places can say that?
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Chon Thai Food
2330 North Alma School Road, #116, Chandler
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch), 5 to 9 p.m. (dinner) Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch), 5 to 9:30 p.m. (dinner) Friday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
Larb gai $5.99
Panang curry beef $9.99
Basil fried rice with beef $7.99
Chicken pumpkin curry $12.99