Many years ago, I dated a chef with a thing for chile peppers. He couldn't get enough of the hot stuff, couldn't shut up about habaneros and serranos, and usually ate jalapeños with everything from noodle soup to pizza. I loved his cooking, but the pepper thing drove me crazy.
You see, I was raised on mild-mannered food meat and potatoes, casseroles, and good old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. My taste for the exotic and unusual started young (probably out of boredom), but heat wasn't part of the picture yet. I think that over time, people really do develop an appreciation for spicy things and the capsaicin-induced burn that kicks in after a bite of chile. But in my case, it took moving to the Southwest to really, truly fall in love with it. That old boyfriend would get a kick out of me nowadays, because his obsession rubbed off on me.
So it was with a raging craving for spicy curries and peppery stir-fries that I decided to check out Lemon Grass Thai Café, a modest Tempe eatery tucked into a pink stucco strip mall, next to a Subway. The place opened last fall, and ever since, I've been hearing raves from friends who live nearby.
Lemon Grass Thai Caf
Lemon Grass Thai Caf, 818 West Broadway Road, Tempe
Coconut soup: $7.95
Papaya salad: $7.95
Sizzling beef: $9.95
Sticky rice with coconut ice cream: $4.25
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
After eating there a few times, I agree that it's a solid spot for Thai food, definitely better than most. Good thing I was able to make repeat visits, though, because at first, I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about.
I stopped by for a midweek lunch with a few coworkers, two of whom are Lemon Grass regulars. We ordered up a table full of food, and although preparations were fresh and mostly flavorful with the exceptions of the bland, decidedly un-garlicky Garlic Lover and Eggplant Garlic stir-fries they just didn't bring the heat like I was hoping. I should've seen that coming when our waitress didn't ask how hot we wanted our dishes. Part of the problem, too, was how we ordered. We mostly stuck to things on the lunch menu, when, as it turns out, some of the most outstanding dishes are only on the dinner menu. (They'll let you order off the dinner menu if you ask, though.)
Aside from the fact that I was still hungry for hot stuff, I wanted to give Lemon Grass Thai Café another chance not only because my friends who recommended it were now bewildered, but also because I had my eye on some other dishes. It didn't hurt that the service was friendly and the atmosphere was comfortable, with warm, amber-tinted lighting, pretty art and carved wall-hangings, and a wooden faux roof outside the kitchen. You'd never expect to find this much charm in such a random location.
When I went back to Lemon Grass for dinner, twice, my outlook improved significantly. For one thing, our waitress asked how hot we wanted it, and even offered "Thai hot." Also, the sizzling beef rocked my world, thanks to excellent peanut sauce that was light, creamy, and much more mysterious than the typical peanut buttery stuff most Thai places serve. That, combined with juicy beef, sautéed spinach, cucumbers, and a sprinkling of sliced almonds, made for a mouthwatering dish that everyone at the table adored. We were also mightily impressed with the Thai pork chop. It was actually two huge chops, both perfectly cooked and very succulent. They came with a side of sweet and sour sauce, although a garlicky marinade made them tasty on their own.
The best appetizer I tried was the som tum (papaya salad), with shreds of papaya and carrot, tomatoes, green beans, and a few plump grilled shrimp, tossed with lime juice and bits of red chile. I've had several letdowns with this dish at other Thai restaurants in the Valley, but am pleased to say that Lemon Grass makes a really punchy version, so tart and spicy it'll make you sweat.
Laab, though not as spicy, had a similar appeal, with ground beef, roasted ground rice, onion, carrot, and mint leaves in a refreshing lime dressing. More unusual was the "White Salad," a warm pile of lightly cooked cabbage, slathered in tangy coconut sauce and topped with chicken, shrimp, and crispy fried onions. It wasn't bad, but I doubt I'd order that instead of the colorful, bracing papaya salad. Tom-yum (hot and sour soup) and Tom-kha (coconut soup) were both vibrant renditions of classics, the former a tangy lemongrass broth with lime leaves, and the latter a creamy, chile-flecked soup with lemongrass and pungent galangal.
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Chicken satay didn't have the smoky, seared exterior that I like, although the meat was moist and had a nice coconut flavor. Meanwhile, the "chubby dumplings," filled with pork, had a strange, almost musty taste. Boneless chicken wings, stuffed with ground pork and chicken, vegetables, and glass noodles, were fun to eat but deceptively filling, while the golden nests four heaps of fried shredded potato, filled with chicken, corn, carrots, and green beans were so light and crisp that my friends inhaled them.
Mild, slightly sweet masaman curry, a thick brown gravy made with coconut milk, tasted great with chunks of potato, onion, tomato, and pork. (Like many of the dishes here, it came with a choice of tofu, chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, calamari, white sole, or a variety of seafood.) Po hang, a heap of fresh seafood in red curry sauce, was fragrant and quite spicy. And on the second try, I ended up loving the "Eggplant Garlic," with soft sautéed chunks of eggplant, onion, pepper, and carrots slathered in a sticky-sweet soy-based sauce. The garlic and fresh basil definitely stood out on round two.
I had no business eating dessert after gorging on so much Thai food, and my friends were ready to burst, but we were thrilled with how our meals ended. Crisp, fried wontons, filled with banana and drizzled in honey, were a delicious freebie that made us smile. Thai custard was light and eggy, almost as golden as crème brûlée on top. Homemade coconut ice cream was tasty, too sweet but not overwhelmingly so. And fresh, warm sticky rice was so fragrant and soothing.
Just the thing I needed, after all those hot, spicy dishes.