Hurts So Good
Unless you have a tongue made of cast iron and a mouth lined with ceramic tiles, the clear noodle salad at Sala Thai Restaurant on 32nd Street, a quarter-mile north of Shea Boulevard, should set your gob ablaze like Los Angeles during the riots, and that's at the "medium" level of spiciness. The first five seconds after you stick a fork of chile-flaked glass noodles in your yap and start gnawing, you think, "Hey, this is no big deal." The next moment you're sucking down syrupy-sweet Thai iced teas like they're water, and breathing fire like you're in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
I'm not complaining. Like the song says, it hurts so good, this mixture of ground pork, shrimp, onion and noodles. Still, whenever I review a new Thai spot, there's always some joker out there who writes in after the fact and brags that he tried the dishes I mentioned, but they weren't hot enough to dent his asbestos epiglottis. Okay, hotshot, stop by three-month-old Sala Thai and order the clear noodle salad. Order it hot, not medium, as I did. And if your eyes aren't watering in short order, give me a call and I'll personally come around with a can of lighter fluid and a pack of matches to ignite your oral orifice. There's the distinct possibility you may not be a carbon-based life form.
A step or two down the pyromania scale are Sala Thai's spicy basil fried rice and its spicy green bean entree. The spicy green bean plate is stir-fried with your choice of flesh. I like the beef best with this pile of onion, carrot, bell pepper and legumes, all in chili oil and garnished with kaffir lime leaves. I prefer chicken with the basil fried rice, which brings the heat without incinerating your taste buds with chiles, or overwhelming them with garlic.
I'm not a sadomasochist when it comes to Thai chiles. I like spiciness as part of the whole symphony of flavors in a dish. That's why I consider Sala Thai, and its self-taught chef Somsaun Pluemjit, to be such a find. Pluemjit's menu sings of the complexity of Thai cuisine, and her creations are less heavy than at other Thai places in town. The curries are thin and light. And every item is teeming with fresh produce that Pluemjit purchased that very morning. You leave Sala Thai's modest one-room restaurant with a spring in your heel, not weighed down, as with competing Thai eateries.
The tom kha gai, or chicken in coconut milk soup, illustrates my point. Here the stock is a white coconut broth that you could drink from a bottle, less thick than horchata even, the dominant flavors being lime and lemongrass balanced with galangal (a root from the ginger family) and a little Thai chile. There are a dozen or so ingredients in it, but what you're left with is the impression made by that quartet of lime, lemongrass, galangal and chile.
Standbys like penang and mussaman curries are soupy as well. Once again, I can't help but compare these with the versions I've enjoyed at other Thai establishments, where the curries have been more akin to Indian curries. I like both styles, though Pluemjit's is less filling and, I'd guess, less caloric. Her pad Thai and pad see-ew noodle dishes seem less greasy to me. The pad see-ew especially, with its flat, sweet noodles, along with chicken, beef or pork, and veggies like Chinese broccoli and baby bok choy, I have a hard time leaving alone until it's disappeared from its plate.
To veer back to the chile-flaked dishes for a moment, my two other faves are the beef larb and the beef salad. I'm a larb fan from way back, so much so that I need to get crackin' on an "I ♥ Larb" wife-beater for myself. The Thai people should garner a Nobel Prize for developing the all-beef salad, whether it's the ground, mint-and-onion-dressed larb, or this heap of steak strips dusted over in crushed chiles and khao kua pon, or roasted rice powder, which Pluemjit simply calls "beef salad." The roasted rice powder is the key, giving the dish a nutty taste and granular texture that accents the savoriness of the sirloin. I only wish Sala Thai had its liquor license, then I could ease it down my gullet with an ice-cold Singha beer.
I've made several trips to Sala Thai and have yet to exhaust the comestibles on offer. Many of the side eats are notable: the rich, dense and lightly fried Thai tofu; the shrimp captain rolls, shrimp rolled up in rice paper and fried; and the nuggets of lightly breaded salmon. Listed as an entree is the "Thai omelet," though it seems more like a small plate to me, stuffed with glass noodles, peas, corn, carrots and ground pork. Similarly, the nosh-errific "son-in-law egg" is under "entree." Boiled, fried, sliced, then sprinkled with fried garlic, it reminds me of a Scotch egg, minus the ground sausage exterior, of course.
Beneath "barbecue" is the addictive Thai barbecued sausage, a limey, garlicky sausage grilled so the skin is a crispy brown, sliced and sprinkled with pepper. This should also probably be listed as an appetizer. Whenever I go now, I almost invariably order one for the road.
Pluemjit's Thai bistro is pleasant enough for small parties to dine in, with colorful Thai fabrics on the walls. But Sala Thai is doing such a booming business in takeout that Pluemjit can hardly print menus fast enough, so many people want one. It's a family enterprise, with dad Samroeng and their 21-year-old son Arnit helping out, and a younger son and daughter are often on the premises. Interesting tidbit: "Sala" refers to the open pavilions common to Thai architecture, a place where people may rest, seek shelter, or, in the case of a Thai temple, hear a sermon.
Pluemjit spent a decade working on an assembly line for Corning in Gilbert before she and her husband, who still works there six days a week, saved enough to open their own place, one much needed in a neighborhood hungry for ethnic dining options. They came to this country 13 years ago so their children would be able to go to American schools, and though they are still working hard, they practically embody the American dream. That and they rustle up some damn fine Thai vittles -- the reason I'll be stuffing my face there as often as I can.
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