Lust for Laab
We need some new rules here on the Ponderosa, and the first one is that for every bad meal I have to endure, my belly deserves to be placated with a satisfying one. Truly, last week's trek to Armadillo Grill was so hideous that I should be pampered like a pasha of yore and fed nothing but champagne and caviar for weeks from the dainty hands of perfumed concubines!
But alas, I have no concubines, though applications are welcome. And anyway, New Times' budget could hardly slake my appetite for Moët and sturgeon roe. That's why I settled on Mint Thai Cafe in Gilbert. After all, some of the most grotesque items at Armadillo were a perversion of classic Thai eats. So I was hopeful that Mint's reputation for scrumptious, stick-to-your-ribs Siamese fare would prove accurate and banish forever the memory of Armadillo's foul, faux-satay chicken skewers.
After gorging myself for several days on Mint's catalogue of comestibles, I can safely state that Mint's reputation is in no danger of being sullied. Don't get me wrong. Mint's nothing fancy. It's homey and friendly, with some cute Thai kitsch here and there, and these kelly green tablecloths with little brown-and-gold elephants that'd make a lovely Hawaiian shirt for me. I may just have to swipe a few on my next visit.
Mint Thai Cafe
1111 North Gilbert Road (between Baseline and Guadalupe roads), Gilbert
Mussaman curry: $9.25
Rama beef: $9.75
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
The restaurant's been in business for 15 years, according to co-owner Chheang Kim, who, along with his wife, Rungnapa Kim, and partner and in-law Sriyupa "Rose" Hul, bought the place from the old owner two years ago. Kim is from Cambodia originally, and Hul is from Thailand. Hul was running a small Thai place in Oxnard, California, when her sister here in Arizona told her Mint was up for sale and that it had a loyal clientele. The families Hul and Kim moved out to Gilbert together to take over Mint, and have kept the menu and the recipes the same with the aid of the previous proprietor Chan Tip Botte, who still works at the eatery as one of the chefs.
So you see, Mint is a team effort, a family affair that benefits from the combined experience and knowledge of all who work there. Too many cooks spoil the broth? Not at Mint, where they produce some durn tasty Thai treats. By St. Michael's mighty sword, I love a good laab (or "larb"), Thailand's renowned meat salad, which can be made with ground beef, pork or chicken. Why, I'm so fond of laab, my Thai friends call me "laab-butt"! And Mint's may just be the best I've sampled in the Valley. I had the beef laab, prepared with roasted ground rice, red onion, Thai chiles, mint leaves, and a spicy lime dressing that had me clucking my tongue in appreciation. It's served with a small side of cabbage to wrap it in, but I prefer to nosh it straight, shoveling it into my porthole with abandon.
Another new rule I'm instituting tout de suite: I need a bloody bib when I eat Thai, because I inevitably end up with my Lacoste looking like the map of Malaysia. As careful as I am in the beginning, the feeding frenzy kicks in when I'm having something as magnificent as Mint's nam sod, a ground-pork salad similar to laab, but with fresh ginger and roasted peanuts. May the gods bless the Thai people for their use of peanuts! That crunchy legume tastes so heavenly with so many Siamese dishes, like Mint's Mussaman curry, for example, a brownish stew of red curry paste and coconut milk with chicken or beef, onions, tomatoes and potatoes. It's topped with peanuts, and I could devour a whole bowl of Mussaman without rice. Nevertheless, I do use the rice to extend the ecstasy of it.
Though the Incas got a head start, peanut butter as we know it was invented by George Washington Carver, who discovered hundreds of other uses for that noble nut. Still, I doubt if he ever thought of slathering some peanut butter on beef in a recipe. That's pretty close to what Mint does with its Rama beef, though it's not really Jif on those succulent slices, but rather a spicy peanut sauce that's slightly sweet and so delectable that it's the first time that I've considered licking cow flesh. (Not counting the last few dates I've had.) The beef's served over cabbage and surrounded by chicken noodles. I couldn't get enough of it, and I may have actually scared my pretty Thai waitress with my carnivorous ferocity.
Mint's pad Thai was okay, but I've always preferred pad see ewe to its more popular cousin. That's because with pad see ewe, the noodles are fatter and soak up a lot of the oyster-garlic sauce in which they come. Also, the broccoli mixed in with the noodles is divine, and complements the chicken or beef (customer's choice) when you spear them on the same fork and munch them simultaneously. As far as soups go, the tom ka gai is the tops. I may name my first-born son after it, if I bother to breed one of these days. Tom ka gai is a hot-and-sour sort of potage, and includes lime juice, chicken, lemongrass, mushrooms, and the ever-present coconut milk. My innards rumble as I type-type away about it.
I could sing hosannas about Mint's appetizers, its chicken wings stuffed with minced, marinated pork and chicken, its golden spring rolls filled with glass noodles and ground chicken, and its satay skewers of grilled clucker accompanied by sides of sliced, syrupy cucumbers and peanut dip -- all more savory than the average Thai bistro. The "golden nests" are adorable and delish: shredded potato molded into a cup, baked, then crammed full of chicken, green beans and carrots. Spoon some sweet-and-sour condiment over it, and the insides turn moist with flavor.
Singha beer is the drink of choice here. As the great Shane MacGowan of Pogues fame once sang in his pirate-like croak, "Singha beer don't ask no questions, Singha beer don't tell no lies." Beer doesn't go with dessert, though, so switch to Thai iced tea when you order the sticky rice with mango, the confection of kings! So good, I've forgotten all about Arma--, Arma-- . . . now what was the name of that hole?
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