Michele Laudig calls Thai Elephant and Thai Hut welcome additions to the central Phoenix dining scene
Maybe I should've wished for a million dollars.
Instead, I wished for more Asian food downtown. And while I'm still waiting for the pho and sushi gods to hear my pleas, I clearly got through to some higher powers in the Thai department.
Not one, but two new Thai restaurants have opened their doors since September. Hallelujah!
Thai Hut debuted first, transplanted from its old Mesa location into the uncannily hut-like building on McDowell that once housed Marvin's Garden. A couple of months later, Thai Elephant took over a space on Adams Street that used to be a barbecue joint, and before that, a Cuban place.
For weekday commuters and neighborhood residents alike, both places are a godsend. It's especially nice that they're open for dinner as well as lunch — it's not always a given with downtown eateries — although I wish the lunch selections at both weren't quite so limited. Sometimes a big bowl of Thai soup is exactly what I crave in the middle of the day, but for the time being, I'll still have to go farther away for my noon fix.
(Honestly, speaking of Thai in downtown Phoenix, this is probably the biggest reason I don't go to The Wild Thaiger very often. Just up Central Avenue, next to Durant's, it's convenient, but I can't get soup there until dinner. Nowadays, if given a choice, I'd be more likely to visit Thai Elephant.)
Thai Elephant was likable all around, which made sense when I found out that it's owned by the same family who runs Thai Basil in Tempe, Ahwatukee, and Chandler.
First off, they took a tiny, bland space and dressed it up with pretty flourishes: wood carvings and a lotus-print tapestry on the pearlescent walls; paper lanterns and woven fan blades above; and praying Buddhas underneath an ornate roof extending from the back counter. Black banquettes line both sides of the room, but they've also packed plenty of tables in between. One look at the lunch crowd here and it's no wonder that Thai Elephant needs the seating.
In the evening, though, it's a different story. Word's apparently not out on this place as a dinner option, and I'm sure various construction projects and the lack of downtown parking don't help the situation. Considering all the great dishes that don't appear on the streamlined lunch menu, I truly hope Thai Elephant can stick it out for dinner service.
My friends and I gobbled up the appetizer combination platter, which included curry-scented satay, a few pieces of deep-fried sweet potato (done up in a light, tempura-style batter), small, crisp veggie spring rolls, and fried tofu with a crunchy, crusty coating. We also enjoyed the sweet and sour, plum, and peanut sauces that accompanied it.
Shreds of fresh green papaya, tossed with green beans, grilled shrimp, cashews, and lime juice, were heaped high on a bed of lettuce, surrounded by tomato wedges. As with almost every dish here, my server specifically asked how spicy I wanted it. I didn't even go for "Thai hot" — just "hot" for this one — and it gave me a delicious nuclear jolt. Meanwhile, I liked the Thai tea from the first sip, but enjoyed it even more when I needed a moment of relief.
Thai Elephant's awesome tom kha hit the spot on a chilly January night. Tinted pale peach, with flecks of red chile, the tangy broth went down like liquid silk. Along with shrimp and whole straw mushrooms, it had lots of scallions, cilantro, and galangal as well. My only regret is that I can't order it off the lunch menu.
The kitchen did a great job with sauces, from the creamy, delicate consistency of the peanut sauce draped over tofu and steamed vegetables in the praram, to the velvety richness of the masaman curry with potatoes, onions, carrots, and peanuts. The green curry was fragrant with basil and red chile, while the "Elephant Garlic" and "Heaven Ginger" dishes were both as pleasantly pungent as their names suggested.
Something else I appreciated was the fresh, appealing presentation of the dishes. Far from being one-dimensional, the spicy eggplant contained a colorful mix of carrots, onions, green beans, red pepper, zucchini, and basil in a garlicky soy-chile sauce. And the pad Thai, served on a glossy square plate, looked mouthwatering, with lots of sprouts and cooked egg and crushed peanuts.
While Thai Elephant is all about simple charms, Thai Hut is all about efficiency, especially when it comes to a quick, cheap bite or takeout. I guess it's what you might expect from a restaurant that resides in a former diner. At lunch, service is so swift that you'll probably get a hot spring roll and cup of mild broth before you even order.
In the way of décor, it's pretty Spartan, with clusters of vintage orange and black lanterns and a few framed Thai tourism posters. Still, a fresh coat of white paint and some new upholstery on the booths have made a huge improvement to the dining room.
Actually, my favorite thing about the atmosphere is right across the street, on the façade of the Phoenix Art Museum. Plant yourself at a booth by one of the big front windows and you can't miss the mesmerizing Julian and Suzanne Walking, artist Julian Opie's animated work depicting a man and woman's leisurely stroll. Maybe someday there will be a stream of real pedestrians along this stretch, but for now, the irony is funny.
If you like your Thai food spicy, be prepared to make a special request. Over the course of my visits to Thai Hut, I was never once asked about my preferences, and most of the dishes I tried were in the mild to medium range. A notable exception was the pad prik khing, a green bean dish slathered in dark, super-potent curry sauce with plenty of red chile. (I ordered it with tofu, but like most other dishes, you can get it with a choice of meat.) The chicken larb, with red chile, roasted ground rice, lime juice, red onion, and cilantro, also had a nice touch of spice, although it was pretty salty.
The tom kha kai was a flat-out disappointment. Done right, this soup can be a creamy, tangy, spicy ambrosia, but here, it tasted — and looked — like coconut milk straight out of the can, with a few sliced mushrooms and chunks of overcooked chicken bobbing around in it. Dry chicken came in a few other dishes as well, while the heavy spring rolls and oily chicken wings reminded me of the greasy spoon that used to be here.
I had much better luck with shrimp and tofu dishes such as the "fresh rolls," with plump shrimp, tofu, cucumber, scallions, and rice noodles wrapped in rice paper, as well as golden shrimp tempura. The sautéed cashew nut dish, with onions, peppers, and chicken in aromatic brown sauce, was also tasty. And I'd be happy to go back for the fine pad Thai with slightly al dente noodles and plenty of tangy-sweet sauce.
Curries were also good bets, especially the vibrant, coconut-y green curry, with fresh basil, bell peppers, bamboo shoots, and green beans, as well as the heady, slightly sweet masaman curry, with potatoes, onions, and peanuts.
One night, I even managed to snag some sticky rice for dessert. Served with tender, ripe slices of mango, it was the perfect way to soothe my taste buds after eating those spicy green beans.
See? Sometimes wishes do come true.
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