We're picking things out of our tom yum soup at Jax Thai Bar, a Tempe restaurant that's the newest addition to Mill Avenue's increasingly cosmopolitan culinary scene. Barklike nubs of galangal, a southeast Asian vegetable that's a member of the ginger family. Whole kaffir lime leaves, dark green and similar to bay leaves. Long stalks of lemon grass, the perennial plant of tropical Asia. Residue piles up like colorful kindling next to our soup bowls.
It's an odd presentation -- usually these potent spices would be powdered, or at least strained out before serving. The pumpkin-orange soup is stocked with chunks of chicken breast and sliced mushrooms and served in a large metal pot centered by a propane burner. We're sitting just inside the front door; when it opens, the breeze whips in and flames char our cheeks.
The fancy tricks are an important component of this hip restaurant. When Jax debuted this summer, it promised to bring something different to our local Thai dining landscape. Catering to an easily bored clientele of yuppies, Gen X'ers and Y's, Jax needed to put a novel twist on a cuisine that's invaded America so profusely over the last several years that in food-savvy cities like L.A., it's hardly even considered ethnic.
Jax has succeeded with stylish service and good looks. There's a lot of sophistication packed into a small space, with exposed brick walls, a sleek bar and lounge and retro-modern decor with lots of red and black. There's another, more private lounge upstairs, looking over the crowd beneath 20-foot ceilings. Guests can grab a tall table or settle at the dining counter in front of the exposed kitchen to watch the chefs slice and dice.
Jax, too, is turning heads with its attitude. Thai food is hot, as in spicy. But here, it's called "atomic." In a chichi kind of "we dare you" taunt, dishes can be prepared in increasing levels that, at the max, will leave scorch marks on your tongue. Drinks aren't just drinks, they're "high performance cocktails." And most entrees arrive in small black bowls, with small plates alongside. Whether it's intentional or not, the bowls have a dual benefit -- they don't hog much space on Jax's too-tiny tables, and they keep the food warm longer than the usual, flat-plate presentation. The individual dishes of rice served with meals are nice touches, too.
It's all quite trendy, big-city and boisterous. Keep in mind -- this is not your typical family-friendly Thai joint. Lunch is quiet, but dinner is loud and dark, packed with the young, beautiful and restless. After the food service stops at 10 p.m., the place turns into a pulsating nightclub.
Happily, however, Jax owner Julian Wright has stopped the trendiness at the ambiance. The food here is basic Thai, and at times, it's dynamically delicious. Although his background consists of managing chain restaurants, Wright appears to have taken every cheap trick he must have learned there and promptly forgotten it -- ingredients are high-quality, fresh and cooked to order.
Once we dispose of the debris, the tom yum is terrific. Ordered at regular heat level, it's spicy enough to be considered hot at most other Thai places, prancing on the back and sides of the tongue. Woon sen is much milder, tossing clear-as-glass bean thread noodles in an aromatic broth of scallions, garlic, white pepper and cilantro, jumbled with chicken, snow peas, baby corn and carrot. This isn't first-date food, though -- it's virtually impossible to eat the noodles, so long and slippery they demand scissors.
Appetizers are served until 12:30 a.m. every day, and some are worth battling the loud techno music and party crowd for a late-night snack. The chicken rice wrap is particularly satisfying, with a burrito-size roll of feather-light rice paper stuffed with ginger lime-dressed shredded green leaf lettuce, salty shredded chicken breast, julienne cucumber, mint, basil, carrot threads, rice noodles and mung bean sprouts. Spunk comes from dipping sauces of kaffir/yellow curry, mint/cilantro cream and plum.
One of Thailand's most familiar dishes is satay, considered street food. Jax's version puts it in an upscale neighborhood, with large slabs of chicken breast or slightly chewy steak seasoned with yellow curry, coconut milk and coriander, then grilled on bamboo skewers. Many places dump satay unceremoniously on a plate, but here it comes splayed prettily on top of a pineapple half, the fruit's insides diced and grilled. Peanut sauce is a mainstay of good satay; this one is so nicely nutty it's reminiscent of melted, caramelized peanut butter. The "cool Thai cucumber" dip, though, is just boring, a sweet-and-sour sauce with cucumber bits.
There's not much excitement in vegetarian spring rolls, either, a generic plate of bean thread noodles, carrot, celery and cabbage tucked into won ton wrappers and deep fried. Instead, turn to Thai-style baked wings, a half-dozen meaty drumettes marinated in soy, hoisin, coriander, curry and lemon grass, then baked. They're grilled upon ordering, and served with truly spicy coconut glaze.
For horrific heat, though, nothing so endearingly sears as keao wan, ordered at atomic level. Holy bejesus. The thin green curry is liquid fire on its own; at atomic, it's painful to eat. Sure, my server warns me it'll be hot, but how many restaurants around town promise that, then send out a wussy smattering of chiles? Be warned: The friendly, efficient staff speaks the truth. My choice of puffed tofu mingles with skinny green beans, bell pepper, water chestnuts and zucchini in the coconut-based sauce topped with fresh basil, but I lose all taste sensation after just a few bites. This dish, at this heat level, is not for amateurs.
The only time hot isn't hot, in fact, is with Jax's Thai prawns, ordered one level below atomic. The two butterflied and broiled tiger prawns and three smaller shrimp are marinated in garlic and red curry, the menu says, but don't taste of anything special. A surrounding pool of panang curry blended with mint/cilantro cream is dull, weighted down further by a pasty mass of rice noodle angel hair pasta ringed with snow peas and shredded kaffir lime leaf.
Pork and coconut noodles are more reflective of Jax's skill. A smallish portion of marinated tenderloin has been baked, then grilled, with the charred tattoos to prove it. The fuchsia meat adorns wide rice noodles tossed with yellow curry, coconut milk, scallions and mung bean sprouts. What a charmer -- firm pork, soft noodles, silky sauce spiked with medium heat and juicy chunks of grilled tomato. Ginger chicken is excellent, too, ordered medium, with breast meat, julienne onion, mushrooms, red bell pepper and thick rice noodles in a garlic-ginger oyster sauce topped with fresh scallions. There's no MSG, no cornstarch thickener, nothing to gunk up a classic, elegant creation.
Even pad Thai, so often too sugary, has been left pretty much alone in an already sweet lemon/vinegar paprika sauce. The noodles are topped with chicken, shrimp, mung bean sprouts, fresh roasted ground peanuts and scallions. Prig khing is another good bet, uniting chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or tofu with fresh carrot and green beans in red curry and peanut sauce.
Jax has plenty of the more familiar dishes, too (think Chinese). This is no Emperor's House o' Chopsticks, though. The only throwaway dish is pud prio wan, garden-variety sweet-and-sour battered, fried chicken, shrimp or tofu with red and green bell pepper, onion, pineapple, cucumber and tomato. Kao pud is pleasingly clean fried rice, studded with meat, peppers, baby corn, snow peas, water chestnuts, broccoli and egg. There's nothing boring, either, about atomic-style himapan (cashew chicken with hoisin, oyster and garlic sauce), or pud tour run tow (chicken and shrimp in a garlic/sweet soy sauce). On their own, they're not that much better than what's offered by your favorite Chinese restaurant, but spicing brings them alive. These mild-mannered dishes can take the heat without melting the mouth.
And for those who think that vegetarian dining has to be boring, health food tastes better when the heat's on. Most of Jax's dishes can be ordered without meat.
Meals end on a strong sugar note with fried bananas, a pile of small fruit dipped in rice flour, coconut and sesame batter, deep fried and drizzled with sweet jasmine/coconut syrup topped with more toasted flaked coconut. It's extremely sweet, and not a confection we're used to seeing on Valley menus -- fried bananas, sure, but not taken to this fashionable level.
Jax has turned up the heat on the Valley's Thai scene. It's an atomic reaction of the tastiest kind.
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