Malee's on Main, 7131 East Main, Scottsdale, 947-6042. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Eating, anthropologists tell us, has meaning far beyond mere physical nourishment. It's a complex act in which social, cultural and economic dimensions all come together. Studying the way a society organizes mealtimes can teach you more than researching its laws, religious rituals or political system. But even a trained culinary anthropologist making a foray into newly renovated Malee's in search of Thai food will be stumped trying to figure out the place at first. He'll find himself befuddled, as if he'd discovered New Guinea tribesmen who like to polka and munch an occasional corned beef on rye. There's a certain amount of dissonance here that takes a while to work through.
For instance, good ethnic restaurants generally have a strong contingent of homesick natives filling up the tables. This hip, buzzing place, however, caters almost solely to Homo Scottsdalicus, chic-looking men and women distinguished by big teeth, deep tans and sweaters neatly tied and draped over the shoulders. According to custom, good ethnic restaurants also employ native servers who speak limited English and dress in the costume of their homeland. I could be mistaken, but I'm unaware of any corner of Thailand in which both men and women dress completely in black and sport bola-tie neckwear, like the fluent-English-speaking staff does here. Good ethnic restaurants like to give diners an aesthetic taste of the old country, too. Often the room is done up in the colors of the flag, and there'll be posters and artifacts to remind everyone of home. But teal and peach, Malee's soothing-on-the-eye colors, do not wave from Bangkok's flagpoles. And paintings featuring Amerindian peasant women and coyotes won't choke up any Thai expatriates, either. All the signs seemed to agree: Malee's is just an odd, Southwestern-themed Scottsdale Thai hangout for the Main Street art-gallery crowd.
But anthropologists have to be careful not to jump to conclusions. Because when the food arrived, it became clear that this unlikely setting delivers some of the best Thai food in town.
Especially once you get past the appetizers, the least appealing part of almost every Thai meal I've ever had. Starters are almost as expensive as main dishes, but not nearly as interesting.
The combo appetizer for two featured lots of fried stuff: tiny spring rolls, miniature pastry cups stuffed with ground, curried chicken, and small tastes of Thai toast, won tons, satay and mee krob. Nothing was compelling enough to make me want to order it on its own.
But the rest of the meal made me eager to go through the rest of the extensive new menu, dish by dish. Thai food is distinguished by sublime herbs, seasonings and condiments: lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf, chiles, galangal (Thai ginger), fish paste and coconut milk. A profitable way to edge into these exotic flavors is through the soup. Tom Ka Gai is a steaming, hot-and-sour coconut broth, redolent with the alluring aromas of lemon grass and galangal. It's filling, too, heavily stocked with chicken and mushrooms. We're not exactly in the middle of the Valley's soup season, but this bowl is good enough to make you forget about the calendar.
The main dishes, most of which fall into the $7 to $10 range, are equally generous. They're tempting, too, which makes it even easier to overorder.
But no matter how far you scale back, don't pass up Thai barbecued chicken. A hacked-up half chicken is soaked in a zesty Thai marinade and gets perked up further with coconut milk. At the last moment, after it's grilled to a sizzle, the kitchen adds a thin rum coating. Then it's brought flaming to the table. The first oohs and aahs are for the presentation, but the more meaningful, happy moans spring up after the first bites.
Nestled between India and China, Thailand borrows its cuisine liberally from each. The Indian influence is most apparent in the curries, but the unique Thai touch completely transforms its character. Gangped Ped Yahng is one of the more intriguing offerings. Sliced roast duck is first saut‚ed in coconut milk, then stir-fried in a hot, creamy curry sauce. Wedges of tomato and pineapple complete the effect. It's an utterly exotic combination of flavors, and a completely captivating one. To get the most from Thai food, unadventurous diners need to keep an open mind and an open palate.
Gaeng Keao Wan is another winning curry. This one's green, with appealingly crunchy green beans and bamboo shoots. Like many of the dishes here, it comes with a choice of beef, pork or chicken (shrimp is an extra three bucks).
Pad Thai is a variant of the Chinese noodle dish, chow fun. Malee's version loses nothing in translation. Chewy rice noodles are pan-fried with chicken, egg, bean sprouts and scallions, then dusted with ground peanuts. A sprightly, sweetened vinaigrette really helps jump-start this Thai staple.
The least visually exciting entree, Pad Gratiem Prik Thai, made up for that shortcoming with taste. It had a lusciously seasoned sauce, heavy with garlic, cilantro and white pepper, infusing tons of thinly sliced pork. Malee's says it heats up dishes on a scale of one (barely hot) to four (ferociously hot). Although we asked for different levels for different platters, everything came at steam-out-your-ears intensity. We didn't mind too much, even though we satisfied our daily eight-glasses-of-water intake while we were still on the soup. But others might. The prospect of sweating at a restaurant this time of year probably isn't too enticing. But if you can stand the heat, get into this kitchen. Erawan, 15615 North 59th Avenue, Glendale, 978-1641. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
While Malee's takes some time to get a fix on, Erawan can be neatly categorized after a ten-second glance: Basic Neighborhood Ethnic Joint.
A longtime west-side fixture, it's furnished right out of the Ethnic Joints R' Us catalogue. Notice the industrial carpeting, posters of Thailand's attractions, fake wood paneling, slow-moving ceiling fans and glass-covered plastic tablecloths.
You won't see any sleek-looking, dressed-to-kill Scottsdale sophisticates, either. Just a low-key mix of Thais and locals enjoying cheap, homey and unpretentious Thai fare.
Aided by my companion, a trained therapist, I figured out a method to deal with my Thai appetizer block. Expect the worst. That way, even mediocre starters could seem good. It worked. Thai egg rolls had a crunchy, greaseless, just-fried-up taste. However, not even Sigmund Freud could have helped me work up enthusiasm for the plastic squeeze bottle of sweet-and-sour sauce that came with them.
The fish cakes, though, didn't require any attitude adjustment. This traditional dish, made with ground fish, chiles, fish paste, scallions and green beans, is deep-fried to a chewy, rubbery texture prized by Thais. It may not be to everyone's taste--don't look for McDonald's to test-market it anytime soon--but I enjoyed its offbeat flavor. The pleasing cucumber, chile and peanut sauce that accompanied it certainly didn't hurt.
By far the best thing we sampled here was the Special Seafood Soup. It's a peppery seafood broth zipped up with chile paste, lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime leaf. You can troll the crowded waters for lots of shrimp, scallops, squid, octopus, fish and, unfortunately, some dreaded hunks of "krab." There's plenty for three, and practically a meal for two.
In a variety of ways, though, the main dishes fall a bit short of the haute Thai level at Malee's. For example, Erawan also serves duck dishes, including one of barbecued duck, napa cabbage and sprouts beautifully fanned across an iron platter. But the duck itself was almost all fat and no meat.
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There's a Thai-style red curry, as well, with lots of tender beef surrounding tasty green beans and bamboo shoots. But the curry sauce, though thickened with coconut milk, was still thin, not nearly as rich or fragrant as we'd encountered elsewhere.
Pad Thai brought a heaping portion of rice noodles smothered with shrimp and chicken. But we didn't get any jolt of Thai seasonings to give this dish its special oomph. Another noodle plate, Paht See Yew, could have come out of a 1950s Chinese-restaurant kitchen. Stir-fried meat and broccoli in a soy sauce provide most of the flavor. It's reasonably good, and very dull. So is the roast pork with vegetables. The pork, with its distinctive red edges, had an institutional quality that the cabbage, broccoli, bamboo shoots, snow peas, water chestnuts and carrots couldn't overcome. Still, for six bucks, you can do a lot worse.
Erawan won't win any culinary medals, but it will give you an honest meal for your money. In this town, that puts you ahead of the game.