By the Great Seal of Solomon, they were the most treacherous 18 holes I've ever encountered in all my years as a golf enthusiast. I don't know what made me want to hit the links in Mesa recently. Perhaps it was seeing Bill Murray at the FBR Open. Or catching the tail end of Happy Gilmore on the boob tube the night before. But the weather seemed cooperative, and not even a high-pollution advisory was going to keep this golf-lovin' gourmand from teeing off.
I was gloriously under par -- until I reached the windmill. You see, Golfland's "King Arthur" course was closed for maintenance, and so I decided to try my luck on the Lost Dutchman-themed mini-greens. I made it through the windmill's mechanical doors all right, but after it came out the other end, I lost count after stroke six. My back nine was filled with more mulligans and Oscar Browns than there are dimples on that little white ball. Dang it all, where's the comely Michelle Wie when you need her?
Fortunately, I already had my 19th hole planned out: a cold glass of Singha beer or three at Benjarong Thai Restaurant, in a strip mall on Country Club Drive just a couple of blocks from Golfland. Precariously perched between LifeWay Christian Fellowship and the more carnal attractions of Paradise Island Massage, Benjarong is run by this fellow Sitthipol SangNgern, known to one and all as "Mr. Moo." Evidently, "moo" means "pig" in Thai, a nickname he earned as a relatively tubby youth back in the old country from his mum.
Benjarong Thai Restaurant
1440 South Country Club Drive, Mesa
Chicken satay: $5.95
Nam sod: $7.95
480-890-9988, web link.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday.
These days, Mr. Moo is a thin chap, and the only pig in his establishment is me whenever I'm in the neighborhood. With the assistance of several family members, Mr. Moo produces marvelous Thai munchies in a quaint, attractive setting that features beige booths with little lace curtains, prints of Thai women in colorful sarongs, and various Thai tchotchkes here and there, including a cabinet of the famous Siamese porcelain for which the restaurant is named. Ask Mr. Moo when you go, and he'll tell you all about the history of this hand-painted, multicolored bone china, outlined in 18-karat gold. Originally used only by the royal Thai court, benjarong is now a part of the formal ware of every Thai home, a symbol of prosperity and well-being.
Regarding Moo's vittles, they are well above average, and those longing for a tear-inducing dining experience will not be disappointed by several of the selections on Moo's menu. Moo and his family grow Thai chiles in their own backyards, and they are experts in the application of these little pellets of fire. Indeed, Benjarong's nam sod salad, with ground pork, ginger, scallions and roast peanuts, drowned in lime juice and flaked red with chiles, could double as fuel for the next Space Shuttle liftoff, it's so potent. Moo tells me what I ate on one excursion was the "mild" nam sod. Egad, my eyes were welling up like I'd just been to a Brian's Song/Terms of Endearment double feature.
Both the beef larb, a similar Thai meat salad minus the peanuts, and the som tum, or papaya salad, with its tomatoes, green beans, dried shrimp, and fresh, finely shredded green papaya, set my tongue ablaze at the middle range of hotness. I should emphasize that the spiciness of these comestibles doesn't interfere with the flavor of same, but it has left my oral cavity smarting in the past with the unique pleasure of that palate pain. The especially sensitive are advised to ask Mr. Moo for the "mild" versions of these dishes.
The satay, too, is hotter than I've had at other Thai spots. Both the chicken and pork satay come lightly curried, and even the peanut dipping sauce has a noticeable sting, though nothing on the level of the aforementioned salads. This makes the satay more delectable as far as I'm concerned, so by no means am I complaining. The Thai toast, coated with seasoned porker and deep-fried, is scrumptious, and, unlike the other items I've been discussing, not at all spicy. The large, halved spring rolls are also safe for those lacking an S&M-like affectation for capsaicin. Filled with chicken, cabbage and clear noodle, the overwhelming flavor is the intriguing earthiness of some odd, stringy mushroom used therein. Redolent of Brie rind, almost, and quite tasty.
I'm not sure why, but the curries I've so far eaten at Benjarong have never struck me as particularly hot, though I know Moo would make them as incendiary as my heart desires, if asked. When I tried the panang with chicken, for instance, it was thick and creamy from the abundance of coconut milk. Why, if it had gotten any creamier, it could pass for a pudding. One of the best panangs I've had, save for the fact that I'd want more hotness in the future.
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The lighter red curry with chicken, bamboo shoots and veggies was also mild, as was one of my all-time Thai faves, the peanutty massaman. Had it with pork on Moo's recommendation one time, and nearly ended with my snout in the bowl. I adored the roast peanuts, the tender hunks of pork, and the sauce, of course, but one minor quibble: The potatoes were a tad underdone for my taste. But we're only talking about a few more minutes in the pot, and believe me, it didn't keep me from polishing off the entire serving.
Benjarong's jasmine rice is nearly perfect, and the pad Thai has a very fresh taste to it, enhanced by the fact that Moo and his family pinch off the heads and roots of the bean sprouts added, unlike most places that just leave them on. As for the pad see-ew with those wide chow fun noodles, it isn't as heavy or as greasy as I've had elsewhere. Probably better for me, though I'd be dishonest if I didn't say that I usually prefer such edibles best when they're more likely to cause a coronary.
Mango is out of season at the moment, so you should wait to try the sticky rice and mango. Moo has mango now, but the fruit will taste better when harvested in April. Meanwhile, Moo's Thai iced tea with milk is syrupy enough to replace Aunt Jemima on your pancakes, and will give you the sugar rush you crave. I'll end with a shout out to LPGA wunderkind Wie: The grub's on me at Benjarong next time you're around, as long as you're willing to help me with my short game on Golfland's infamous Lost Dutchman course.