Been hungry for Thai food lately? If so, call yourself a trendsetter.
This is purely anecdotal, but it seems to me that there's been a visible proliferation of Thai restaurants across the Valley in the past few years, even more so than sushi bars or Vietnamese pho joints. There are scores of them — usually a few in every neighborhood, and many of them quite good. Think of how Thai Rama, Thai Basil, Thai Elephant, and Swaddee Thai have spawned multiple locations. Competition is steep.
How to explain our lust for curries, spicy stir-fries, noodles, and fragrant soups? I wonder if it's a hot climate/chile pepper thing, in the same way that spicy Mexican food just makes sense in these parts — break a sweat eating fiery food, and a 100-degree day might seem more bearable. Or maybe we're just hooked on mouthwatering herbs like cilantro, Thai basil, and lemongrass. In any case, Phoenicians' collective cravings have created a booming business for Thai cuisine.
Takeda Thai by Moulay
10271 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
Ribeye skewers: $11.95
Tom kha gai: $7.95
Papaya salad: $9
Panang curry with shrimp: $17.95
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
One of the newest contenders is Takeda Thai by Moulay, run by chef-owner Moulay Takeda and his wife, Sara. They opened their place several months ago at Windmill Plaza, on the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea, and incredibly, they've transformed what was once a golf shop into a very appealing neighborhood restaurant.
If you're expecting a typical no-frills ethnic joint, you're in for a surprise. Outside the front window, a contemporary metal sculpture doubles as a fire feature at night. Wall sconces, inset ceiling lights, and votive candles cast a soft glow on polished granite table tops throughout the dining room, decorated with small Buddhas and carved wall hangings. There's a full bar stretching across the back of the space, and a curvy banquette along one side, upholstered in a pale sage elephant pattern. Gracious service complements the soothing, relaxed vibe.
Instead of the 100-plus menu items that you'll find at some Thai places, Takeda Thai's got a well-edited selection of traditional favorites to go along with the classy atmosphere. Accordingly, the pricing is not dirt-cheap, although the $7.95 lunch special — which includes a crispy egg roll and bowl of delicate egg-drop soup — is a remarkably good deal.
What struck me about the cooking here was the subtle complexity of flavors, as well as the quality of the ingredients. I've eaten pad Thai more times than I could ever recall, but rarely has the ubiquitous noodle dish contained chicken this tender, or plump, sweet shrimp that were cooked just right. The pad Thai basically illustrates chef Moulay's deft touch with meat and seafood in everything I tasted at Takeda Thai.
I'd certainly get fish here again. Red snapper was a special one night, and I hope they have it again soon. The waitress practically begged me to order it.
"It's really yummy," she insisted, making it sound as though I'd be missing out on something incredible if I didn't try it. Expectations inflated, I braced myself for the mystery dish, which took longer to prepare than my dining companion's entree.
When the snapper finally came out, though, I knew before the first bite that I'd made the right choice. Two huge pieces of fish — skin, bone, and all — were gently fried to a deep caramel color and served on a platter with sweet red chili sauce, Thai chiles, bok choy, zucchini, and broccoli. What an amazing aroma. I'm pretty sure I was already smiling by the time I took a bite of crispy skin and juicy, pale-white fish. And although it looked like a huge portion at the time, I surprised myself by devouring every last bit of it.
Other fried treats got the light treatment as well — petite spring rolls filled with minced chicken, vegetables, and glass noodles; crab- and cream cheese-filled pockets that resembled origami; and something called "angel wings" that our server said were very popular. Turns out, they were large boneless chicken wings, stuffed with veggies and glass noodles, and deep-fried to a delightful crispiness. Sweet and sour chili dip added zing.
Rib eye skewers were noteworthy, too — juicy, well-seasoned chunks of medium-rare steak, grilled with red pepper, onion, and zucchini. Shredded green papaya salad tossed with lime dressing was decent, if not exceptional. Next time, I think I'll specify that I'd like more spice. But the tom kha gai was seriously delicious, with a tangy dose of lime juice and notes of galangal, cilantro, lemongrass, and Kaffir leaves to brighten the silky coconut milk. After my friends and I plundered the chicken and mushrooms from the soup, we drank every luscious drop of the remaining broth.
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Panang curry had similar allure, thanks to coconut milk and Kaffir lime leaves. Stocked with shrimp, fresh green beans, and bell pepper, with Thai basil chiffonade on top, it was subtly sweet and mildly spicy. Red curry had a richer, tangier flavor, with sliced bamboo shoots added to the same mix of veggies.
In contrast, fried tofu in a Thai-style sweet and sour sauce was lighter and sweetly acidic, bolstered by chunks of pineapple, tomato, onion, and zucchini — also quite good. The Thai basil stir-fry played with bold flavors as well, enhancing slices of beef with chiles, onion, bell pepper, and a dose of garlic. And as for the pad see-ew (pan-fried flat noodles), tossed with carrot, egg, broccoli, and chicken, the mildly sweet soy sauce flavor took a back seat to the comforting texture of the soft noodles.
Desserts were about simple pleasures, too — hot, crispy, wonton-wrapped bananas with cold, creamy vanilla ice cream, and thick, juicy slabs of ripe mango atop a warm mound of fragrant sticky rice. After a bowl of curry, these soothed my taste buds.
Takeda Thai isn't doing anything cutting-edge, just making classic dishes with care. And for as many Thai restaurants as there are in the Valley, there can never be enough of that.