It's not hard to figure out why college students and ethnic restaurants go hand in hand. One demands food that's a cheap, quick, and tasty alternative to instant ramen, and the other is happy to accommodate. So the pickings near the ASU campus are predictably diverse: Mexican, Indian, Ethiopian, and an abundance of Mediterranean joints. But oddly enough, you won't find them where you'd expect. Instead of hitting Mill Avenue for the best international eats, you have to head to less obvious nooks, mostly in nearby strip malls.
And even if you do count the Americanized Chinese of P.F. Chang's or the Americanized Japanese of Ra on Mill Avenue, the area still suffers from a relative shortage of Asian restaurants. There's Char's Thai and Sushi 101 near Rural Road and University Drive, Seoul Garden down the street from there, and Khai Hoan, a little Vietnamese place on Apache Boulevard near Haji Baba.
But now cash-strapped, hungry scholars can add one more to the list: Thai Basil, open since last fall a few doors down from Tops Liquor on University. As with most of the good ethnic places, I found out about it through word of mouth. One of my vegan friends is already a fan because of its meatless menu choices.
403 West University Drive, Suite 101, Tempe
Spring rolls: $5.50
Papaya salad: $7.95
Coconut soup with chicken: $7.95
Green curry with prawns: $9.95
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday; Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The folks at Thai Basil dressed up a former sub shop with dark wood tables and chairs, muted gold walls, charming vintage portraits, and Thai woodcarvings to make the simple space welcoming to solo diners and small groups alike. The prices are alluring, too. Hardly anything's over $10, and at lunch, all but two dishes are $6.95.
The coconut soup (tom kha) is my favorite starter. You can have it with chicken, prawns, calamari, or a mix of seafood, but we ordered it with tofu so everyone at the table could share. Some of my friends later admitted that they secretly expected to dislike it. And guess what? Nobody left a drop in their bowls. The soup was smooth as satin, with spicy flecks of roasted red chile punctuating slightly sweet coconut milk. Each spoonful was potent sharp, perfumy lemongrass, pungent galangal (Thai ginger), and earthy mushroom and the chunks of tofu were just firm enough to give it substance.
I dug into some other appetizers, too. Delicate fried spring rolls, served with a fruity sweet-and-sour sauce, were stuffed with a savory mix of carrots, cabbage, and glass noodles. And the crispy sweet potato sliced, batter-dipped, and golden-fried was addictive with a tiny bowl of Thai plum sauce for dipping.
Perhaps to the relief of my salad-fatigued vegetarian companions, the salads at Thai Basil (with the exception of the Siamese green salad) were geared to carnivores. And they were easily entree-size. Papaya salad (som-tum) was full of exhilarating flavors, with prawns, slivers of crunchy green papaya, carrot, tomato, peanuts, and a few raw green beans tossed in spicy lime juice and served on fresh lettuce. Specks of red chile gave it heat, and a splash of fish sauce gave it a salty-sweet tang. As for the beef salad (yum-nua), it was so hot that it warmed my stomach, gave me a temporary case of the sniffles, and left my lips tingling for 20 minutes. (If you're not into spicy food, that probably sounds scary, but I swear that's what I wanted.) The extreme spice brought out the flavor of the grilled meat, and fresh spearmint leaves, lemongrass, and onion kept it from tasting heavy.
Too many times, I've had overcooked pad-see-ew that turned out like mush. Seriously, I started to think the problem was me, not the preparation of the dish. So when Thai Basil served this tangle of soy-flavored wide noodles and vegetables slightly al dente, I was gratefully taken off guard. Another surprise was the barbecued pork. The thin, soy-and-herb-marinated cutlets, nicely charred from the grill, came with a side of kicky red chile sauce, but even without it, the pork tasted of salt, smoke, and sugar.
The pad Thai here is classic. (I crave the dish regularly, so I'm sure I'll be back for more.) The kitchen didn't skimp on anything: It was a generous portion of spicy noodles mixed with fried egg, chicken, and tofu, served with plenty of cool, crunchy bean sprouts, ground peanuts, and slivers of green onion.
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Both the green and red curry plates, served with soft piles of jasmine rice, were delicious, although I suspect that our server got confused about which was supposed to be hot and which was supposed to be medium. Still, each was creamy and spicy, with Thai basil, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, green beans, and zucchini. Rich coconut milk was more prominent in the red curry, which we tried with tender chunks of chicken, while the green curry with tofu had a brighter taste, thanks to the addition of eggplant and a bit more basil.
Thai Basil's namesake dish (pad-ga-pao) was a rainbow of fresh vegetables sauted with fat, flame-colored prawns and plenty of Thai basil in a slightly peppery garlic sauce (I ordered it medium). Even now, thinking back to its complex smell, my mouth is watering. Too bad I didn't have leftovers.
After so much chile and curry and garlic, dessert sounded like a good way to wind things down, so we tried both choices. The "FBI" dessert was a pretty easy crowd-pleaser: fried hunks of banana with a couple big scoops of vanilla ice cream. No complaints there, but I preferred the sticky purple rice, a naturally dark indigo variety of grain cooked into a pudding with coconut milk and served with slices of ripe mango. It was a much more controversial treat a couple of my dining companions couldn't get over how it looked, and I'll spare you the details but I loved its thick, creamy texture, with chewy, swollen grains of rice that burst into starchy sweetness. It was a fun, quirky ending to a feast where my meat-eating companions got their protein fix, the veggie lovers enjoyed plenty of options, and everyone left happy and full.
It almost made me miss being a college student.