Thai beef noodle soup is not all that different from Vietnamese pho. Both are fragrant and laden with a variety of textures, and their deep, rich broths are the result of a multitude of herbs and spices stewed with meat for hours. They are dishes cooked with patience, but often devoured with zeal.
At 69, Phannee Plabprasit knows a thing or two about patience in the kitchen (and Thai beef noodle soup), but it wasn't always this way. As a child growing up in Bangkok, she often was scolded by her mother, who complained that her daughter was impatient when they cooked together because she wanted go out and play.
"I learned that you will spoil the taste of a dish if you try and hurry it," Plabprasit says. "That's what makes my restaurant different — most of what I make takes time."
Laura Hahnefeld cafe
1245 West Baseline Road, Mesa
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; Dinner: 5 to 9 p.m Tuesday through Sunday
Boat noodle soup with beef: $9.95
Mussel pancake: $10.95
Palees Noodle: $9.95
Homemade coconut ice cream: $4< br/>
Her restaurant is the five-year-old Palee's Crown in Mesa, the culmination of a lifetime of doing what she loves. After arriving in the United States in 1979, Plabprasit cooked in California, two restaurants in the Valley (including Malee's on Main in Scottsdale), and her first restaurant, the now-defunct Bangkok Express in Tempe. Made from scratch and keeping their authenticity intact, Plabprasit's Thai dishes — most notably, the special orders and signature creations — abound with flavor. And the restaurant's relaxed atmosphere and cheery service sets a welcoming backdrop for enjoying them.
The Thai-timid could start with a more familiar selection on Palee's sizable menu — a coconut-sweet tom kha soup, satisfying curry, or the perfect-for-summer Crying Tiger salad. Its pieces of grilled marinated beef, onions, and plentiful mint tossed in a spicy Thai dressing are designed to be spooned onto fresh cabbage leaves and eaten like a lettuce wrap. Unless requested, spiciness is kept on the mild side. But as at many Thai restaurants worth their salt, it's best to order a dish in the manner it would be prepared in its homeland, or how the chef prefers it. And it should be noted when ordering the papaya salad — a colorful, crispy nest of shredded unripened papayas, garlic, string beans, tomato, and Thai chiles in a spicy dressing served with a skewer of grilled shrimp — Plabprasit likes hers very hot, indeed.
Those looking for more adventurous Thai dining should turn to a handwritten sign near the kitchen to seek out Plabprasit's signature dishes. The list's six entrees are well known among Palee's Thai customers, and they set this restaurant apart from other Thai places in the Valley.
Three noodle soups are listed, and your decision on which to order most likely will derive from what you seek in a main ingredient. There is the seafood noodle soup, in which a slightly spicy and bright tomato broth brimming with fish cakes and fish balls, shrimp, squid, scallions, and wedges of tofu surrounds an island of egg noodles. Fans of offal will enjoy a dish listed as curly noodle soup but actually close to kuwy juub, a cinnamon-sweet broth with soft, fatty pieces of pork belly, intestines, and stomach with eggs, tofu, and scallions, swimming with wispy rice chips. Finally, Palee's most popular dish, boat noodles with beef, was an instant hit at my table. Featuring slices of beef, beef meatballs, scallions, cilantro, crispy pork skins, and bits of peanuts served over rice noodles in a deep, richly seasoned broth with hints of garlic and cinnamon, it is, like Vietnamese pho, as comforting as it is intense.
Rounding out the sign's items are the satisfying kaikua (flat rice noodles scrambled with tender pieces of chicken, egg, and green onion and served with fresh lettuce); a stellar Thai red pork with rice, featuring tender pieces of marinated pork over rice and crispy pieces of pork rind in a clingy, deep red sauce of honey, soy, and vinegar; and a dish rarely seen in Thai restaurants in the Valley but common as street food in Thailand — hoi tod (fried mussel pancake). Better as a shared starter or snack than an entree, Plabprasit's is cooked in an oversize skillet until the eggy mixture, filled with large plump mussels, becomes crispy on top. She then tops it with sautéed bean sprouts, green onions, and cilantro and serves it with a side of spicy-sweet sauce for a delectable dish.
If Thai-style roast beef is listed as a special on the blackboard at the front of the restaurant, you should order it. Cooked for days, Plabprasit's twist on the traditional classic features tender chunks of meat in a sweet, cinnamon-tinged marinade paired with an equally flavorful savory sauce.
From the menu, the Palee's Wrap features a fresh mound of ground sauteéd chicken mixed with cashews, water chestnuts, onions, lemongrass, carrots, mushrooms, and shallots topped with a wild wig of crispy rice noodles. Spooned onto lettuce leaves, it is a refreshing beginning to a meal.
There also is Thai jerky, a dish that Plabprasit's son, Tanarak, who sometimes helps out at the restaurant, tells me his mom used to make in Bangkok after a trip to the open market, where she would select meat to butcher herself at home. The thin, glistening strips of deep-fried marinated beef have a pleasing, sweet chewiness and are perfectly paired with a smoky chile paste. And, finally, there is the crazily addictive Palee's Noodle. With a choice of meat or tofu, this noodle dish, more akin to a noodle soup, features egg noodles covered in a sweet broth of coconut milk with shallots, scallions, bean sprouts, and the slightest hint of mustard for a decidedly unique flavor. When I asked Plabprasit what inspired her to create this dish, she simply answered, "It's everything I like put into one bowl." Nuff said.
After dinner, don't miss another one of Plabprasit's endeavors — her popular housemade coconut ice cream. Lusciously creamy and intensely fresh, the sweet, pure coconut is so habit-forming, I couldn't stop myself from muscling spoonfuls away from my guests. Next time, I'm going solo.
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In contrast to its aging strip mall exterior, the inside of Palee's is bright and welcoming. Deep red booths and chairs complement an array of Thai artwork on the walls. There are glass-topped tables with colorful, fringed tablecloths underneath and a small selection of gifts Plabprasit brings from Thailand that are for sale in the front of the restaurant. Customers, who Plabprasit calls her "kings and queens," can expect consistently helpful and friendly service and usually a tableside visit from Plabprasit, as well.
And when I ask the 69-year-old — who tells me she regularly works 16-hour days and that, on this day, her shoulder hurts more than usual — how long she intends to keep Palee's Crown going, she smiles and says she has no plans to retire.
"I tried staying home once," Plabprasit says. "I got bored."