Some meals are meant to be solo adventures, reserved reflections on flavors executed with slow, thoughtful bites in the quietude of an intimate setting.
This was not one of them.
The thought occurred to me when the steaming sticky rice arrived in a small bamboo basket. Like children suddenly permitted to play with their food, my guests and I excitedly passed the container around, joyfully plucking out chunks of the gummy rice, wrapping them around pieces of pork jerky, and popping the pairing into our mouths. Chewing slowly, we let the sweetness of the dried, marinated meat take the edge off the lingering effects from earlier bites of spicy papaya salad.
Laura Hahnefeld cafe review
Pete's Thai Cuisine
12032 North Cave Creek Road
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Buffet: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily (except Saturday)
Papaya salad: $10.95
Seafood combo with curry: $14.95
"Ahhh," somebody said. It was probably me. There was a burst of laughter. And for a moment, we grinned at each other like owners of a shared secret: We had found Pete Pholtosa's newest Thai restaurant — and this was not to be a solemn event.
The former owner of Siam in Glendale and, more recently, Thai E-San in Central Phoenix, Pete (or, in Thai, Tossapis) Pholtosa's newest venture, simply called Pete's Thai Cuisine (no relation to Phoenix's infamous Pete's Fish 'n' Chips, I can assure you), is three months old. Pholtosa's food tells the story of his life in the Nakhoyn Phanom province in northeastern Thailand and distinguishes Pete's from other Thai restaurants in the Valley by featuring traditional dishes from his hometown. Given their uniqueness and bold flavors, this may mean finding a new favorite or defining the limits of what your palate can handle. In either case, it's worth stopping by to find out.
And when you do stop by, after pulling up to the plain, painted-brick building, you'll find the interior of Pete's nicer than you'd expect. The room is brightly lit and clean, the walls swathed in lustrous gold and red paint, and the floor a shiny purple with stenciled designs. Here, amid the wraparound bar (BYOB for now) and tables topped with white linens and live flora, the unusual mix of Pete's patrons — from young couples to rough riders to middle-aged folks — sip sweet, creamy Thai tea in tall, curvy glasses while Thai music videos play on a small TV, and the aromas of lemongrass, fish sauce, and grilling meat hang thick in the air.
Pholtosa is a one-man show, so expect to wait when his restaurant is busy. On one of my visits, it took an excruciating hour and a half to get our food, a wait, my pleasant server assured me, that would not happen again.
Pholtosa's offerings include classic Thai cuisine as well as specific dishes from northeastern Thailand, which, given the region's shared border with Laos, translates to fresh, crunchy greens and vegetables and a focus on ingredients such as lemongrass, fish sauce, mint, and galangal, a cooking herb related to ginger, but with a pungent, medicinal flavor. Dig deeper and you'll find comfort food dishes you may not find elsewhere, including noodle soup and Thai spaghetti (rice noodles with a spicy sauce, vegetables, and sweet chunks of mango and watermelon served only on Pete's lunch buffet, and only sometimes). Nods to the simple, satisfying food typically served in Pholtosa's hometown, they may lead those in the know to wax nostalgic.
Thai meals are share-friendly, so it made sense when the appetizers followed suit, with the portion sizes an indication of entrées to come. There are average egg rolls and spring rolls, better chicken satay, and exceptional fried wontons and triangles of Thai toast, both made with ground pork. But the Thai fish cakes were the standout. Fried and flecked with bits of yardlong beans and kaffir lime leaves, their bouncy texture, even heat, and well-seasoned flavor were as popular with my table as the Thai sweet chili sauce they were served with.
And when it comes to sauces and condiments, Pholtosa's homemade array of them, served tableside or available at the bar, are worth a dip or two. Along with the sweet chili and peanut sauces, there are small bowls filled with chili peppers in rice vinegar, dried chili flakes, whole Thai peppers, spicy prik nam pla (made with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and chopped chiles), and a refreshing cucumber, onion, and green chile concoction that cools the mouth after a particularly spicy dish. Trying one with an appetizer or a ball of sticky rice is an enjoyable flavor journey worth taking.
It is said that tom yum (lemongrass) soup is one of the world's most delicious foods, and at Pete's — where it is served bubbling in an elevated metal moat surrounding an open flame — it does not disappoint. The broth, colorfully brimming with mushrooms, strips of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, pale pieces of galangal, crushed chile peppers, and chunks of chicken, provides a hot-and-sour flavor that could warm even the coldest soul.
And if you prefer your soups on the fishy side, order the seafood combo with hot and sour curry. Heavy on the fish sauce, spicy, and swimming with shrimp, clams, chunks of fish, and mussels, this aromatic broth comes with a warning if you are bringing home leftovers: Don't spill it in the car.
There are, of course, Thai curries — colorful, dizzyingly aromatic, and more soup-like than their thicker Indian cousins. Served in pretty, elongated dishes, the red was my favorite, its tender chunks of chicken, bamboo shoots, green beans, and Thai eggplant and herbs eliciting a rich, savory flavor, with a balanced heat that flushed my cheeks to a similar hue. The milder pa-naeng was disappointing because of a heavy dose of kaffir lime leaves and dry chunks of beef, and the chu-chee, rusty red with a spicy bite, was delicious but unable to save the overcooked whole red snapper it covered.
For an affordable sampling, you can't beat the $7.77 buffet from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day but Saturday, but for a unique (and at times daring) gastronomical adventure, stick with the E-San-style dishes. They are, in a word, hardcore.
Originating in Laos, the tamest of these dishes is the meat salad called larb. Served at room temperature, mine — made with minced beef flavored with fish sauce and herbs and mixed with chile, onions, and bits of nutty, toasted rice — was satisfyingly spicy, with a strong presence of lime and hints of mint. For those wanting a similar taste but with their beef cut into strips rather than minced, try the Thai E-San beef salad prepared with a few green Thai chiles peeking out from the marinated meat, just to keep things interesting. And, sure, the Thai E-San pork sausage certainly looks a bit like the Western version, but the similarities end there. The intense flavor of pungent lime and whip-crack heat were enough to make the inside of my mouth vibrate.
For the truly brave, there is the papaya salad with crab and stinky fish. When my dining companion insisted we order it, and order it as a five on the 1 to 5 heat index, there was little I could do to dissuade her, but then I doubted much would. Having been raised in northeastern Thailand, she moved to the Valley in 1974, when Thai restaurants were as rare as rain and she made most everything on Pete's menu at home. The woman clearly knew what she was doing. (And with her telling me about her current obsession with guns and a purchase of her very own M-15, who was I to argue?)
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I give her credit for smiling only slightly upon witnessing my first bite of the slightly tart, grated papaya strips mixed with juicy tomatoes and crunchy beans that, without warning, was followed by a hell-hot, stinging heat courtesy of slices of red Thai chiles, then an intense fish flavor from the sauce of pieces of salty crab and fermented fish poking up from the plate. My expression must have been priceless.
"It's good, huh?" she said.
"Wow," I whispered, managing to half open one of my tightened, tear-filled eyes.
That's when she laughed.