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WOK ON BY

Here's a mystery for you culinary detectives. Why is Thai food in Los Angeles so superior to what we have here in the Valley? Why, oh why? On a relative scale, we're not that much farther from Bangkok than, say, Pasadena. So why the huge difference in quality and taste?

Yes, that's right. I'm admitting my bias right here in the first paragraph. Los Angeles has spoiled me for Thai food. I'm not even talking big-time L.A. Thai food. My sister lives in the foothills, in a pretty normal town, and right near her house are two little mom-and-pop Thai places that I would kill to have even one of in the Valley. I'm that desperate.

Oh, I try to keep an open mind. When someone tells me they've found a new Thai place they like, I'll visit it, even if it's out of the way. Under this cynical skin, I'm an optimist at heart. I mean, anything is worth a try when your alternative is driving six hours through the desert, right?

And believe me, the two Thai restaurants I visit this week are out there.
Bangkok House is located at 95th Avenue and Peoria in Peoria, just down the street from the white protective walls of Sun City. I learn, on the way home, that the quickest way to get there is on our new freeway system. I don't know about you, but I'm impressed with what a half-cent tax can accomplish.

The first thing I notice about Bangkok House are the signs posted on the door. "Rest rooms for customers only"--or something to that effect. An odd warning for a little restaurant nestled in what appears to be a low-volume strip mall. Were too many aged joggers trying to make unscheduled pit stops? Curious.

The second thing I notice is that there are more people in the lounge next door than in the restaurant. In fact, for the duration of our meal, we're the only ones in the dining room. Maybe on Tuesdays everyone orders take-out. (Bangkok House will deliver orders of $15 and up.) Maybe everyone's over at Empress of China or playing bridge. I don't know.

What I do know is, solitude translates into very good service. Our diminutive waitress is incredibly helpful. When Goat asks her what galangal is, she offers to bring a piece of this gingerlike root from the kitchen to show him. When we warn her we're going to order "a lot," she tells us, "No problem." Everything is homemade and freshly prepared. "You can microwave after one week and it still be good," she says.

The interior of Bangkok House is very plain. White walls are accented by an eclectic array of framed prints, paintings and photos. Carpet and tablecloths are maroon. If it weren't for the two cases filled with traditional Siamese statuary on either side of the register and portraits of the royal family, we could be in any kind of restaurant.

For appetizers we've ordered assorted satay and Thai egg rolls. Somehow I've never had Thai egg rolls. They arrive first, two for Goat and two for me. They strike me as a cross between Chinese egg rolls and Vietnamese spring rolls. The slender rolls are fresh from the fryer, hot as the dickens and delicately filled with cellophane noodle, cabbage, carrot and mushroom. A sweet-and-sour sauce, pink and gloppy, comes with them. It adds a nice flavor.

Bangkok House gives you a choice of three types of satay: pork, beef and chicken. "Chicken very good," says our waitress. We can't choose, so she promises to bring us an assortment of all three. What we get is four chicken and one beef. But that's okay. The bits of meat-on-a-stick are nicely grilled, tender and smeared with yellow coconut paste. We make good use of the saucers of peanut sauce and fresh cuke, Bermuda onion and chile. The raw veggies marinated lightly in vinegar are one of my favorite things in a Thai meal.

From the lounge, which we cannot see, come the sounds of billiard balls and TV sitcoms. "Are they laughing?" Goat wonders incredulously. Indeed, the sound of live human laughter joining the canned is audible. "What are they watching?" he asks. "M*A*S*H*?"

I understand that in Thailand a soup or soupy stew is served with the meal and eaten with rice. Most Thai restaurants in this country, including Bangkok House, have adopted Western conventions. The soup we order, tom kha kai, arrives after our appetizers and before our other dishes.

But is it ever good! Hot and sour, pungent with the distinctive flavors of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, the soup is sweetened with coconut milk and made earthy with the taste of the aforementioned galangal. To the kitchen's credit, the chicken meat in this soup is white and sans gristle. I get a fiery surprise when I chomp down on what I think is a green bean. Yes, I have just consumed a whole serrano chile. When the younger woman who brings us our food comes over, I joke about my mistake. She looks concerned. In minutes, our original waitress emerges from the kitchen. "You got to be careful," she says. "There are no green beans in that soup."

 

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to explain the masochistic pleasure of eating spicy food? Restaurant people are always trying to protect you.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. "We want it hot," we say. "Regular hot?" "Hot," we intone, in unison. "Okay, I bring it regular hot. You can make it hotter if you want." A trio of condiments, including soy sauce, fish sauce and crushed chiles, is placed on our table. This is a good thing, since "regular hot" turns out to be lukewarm after all.

When we finish the soup, our Thai salad arrives. A mixture of iceberg, bean sprouts, Bermuda onion, tomato, cucumber and egg topped with heavy peanut sauce, the salad is boring and ordinary.

But there's hope yet. Here come the three entrees we've ordered. They look small to me; the demure size of Thai portions, compared to other Asian cuisines, still comes as a shock. After tasting our dishes, I no longer care about their size. None of them thrills me. Mint chicken is overloaded with bamboo shoots and has a harsh, acrid taste. Red curry pork with green beans (phik khing) is hairy with anchovy paste. Glass noodles with seafood is heavy on the galangal; the only seafood is shrimp and slices of squid.

While we eat, several people emerge from the kitchen to ask us how our meal is. Bangkok House is run by very sincere, cordial people. But after the outstanding spicy and sour soup, things go downhill, food-wise.

Or maybe we are just expecting too much.
We pack what remains into Styrofoam for the freezer. On the drive back to Phoenix, down 99th Avenue and across town on the Papago, I try to look on the bright side. If Bangkok House is good for nothing else, at least we won't have to travel too far if my sister gets itchy for a Thai food fix when she and her brood converge on Sun City at Thanksgiving.

In an emergency, almost anything will do.

Or will it?
A caller alerts me to the existence of Chada Thai. Somehow, the idea of a good little Thai restaurant on North Cave Creek Road fascinates me. On a recent Friday evening, Goat and I climb into the car, crank open the sunroof and head up there to check it out.

Every table is full when we arrive. Will we wait? Of course we will. Maybe we haven't driven six hours to get here, but we've driven far enough. Chada Thai seats just fifty, but they've done a lot to make the small space attractive. The wall obscuring the kitchen is papered with a red print which suggests Thailand. Side walls are simple white plaster warmed by yellow lanterns. The traditional Thai headdress on display near the register lends an air of authenticity.

After ten minutes, we are seated. I'm being amazingly patient, for me, but my patience soon runs out. After another wait, one of the two servers in the room, a woman, comes to ask us if we want drinks. "Tea," says Goat. I tell her we are ready to order. When I see she has nothing to write with, I warn her that our order will be large. "I'll be back," she says, and disappears.

Another five minutes pass. Granted, it is busy, but I'm approaching that unpleasant stage of hunger. She returns with two cups, a tea bag and hot water in each. "I'm so sorry," she says. "We are all out of pots. As soon as we get one, I'll bring it." It doesn't happen. Tea served like this is a lot less romantic. It's so much more finite.

And this is only the start.
The pork satay is miserable. The meat is chewy and hard to cut without a knife (with which we have not been provided); the peanut sauce is gloppy. Worse yet, in an area where chiles are available in every supermarket, Chada Thai has substituted bottled jalapenos for fresh in the cucumber, onion and chile condiment. My respect drops immeasurably.

We endure another wait after the satay. Eventually, our spicy chicken soup arrives. As at Bangkok House, this is the best part of the meal. Fragrant with aromatic herbs and lime and full of tender chicken pieces, this soup lives up to Thai food's fiery reputation. I ask Goat if it's spicy enough for him. "It makes my nose run," he says. "But it doesn't make me hiccup."

 

Perhaps Goat is onto something. Maybe the answer to the plaguing problem of "How hot is hot?" is to develop a range of corresponding physical symptoms. I see this explained graphically on menus: one hanky, two hankies, et cetera.

Silver noodle salad is next on the agenda. I don't like it at all, though you know me as a true noodle lover. This cold dish is not delicate in the least. Everything is roughhewn and seems heaped together. The chicken is gristly and undercooked; the two or three shrimp are gray and flaccid.

But wait. Quality aside, there's not supposed to be chicken in our silver noodles. The menu says it contains shrimp and pork. All night long we have heard other diners questioning our waitress about meats in seafood dishes--now we understand why. When we ask her about it, she tells us they had to substitute.

The next two dishes are equally disappointing. Beef with mint leaves is just plain ugly. It looks like some kind of beef stew. The beef is low quality, stringy and in big, hard-to-cut pieces. The vegetables--bell pepper, onion and tomato--are clunky, too.

Shrimp pineapple curry has a pleasant taste, but is otherwise lacking. Thankfully, these shrimp are not gray, but they are underdone. Canned pineapple and tomato underwhelm me.

At the end of our meal, I do something rare. I decline to take home the extra. Though it would make our server feel better, I just can't stomach wasting Styrofoam on food I'm only going to throw out. When she asks us if there was something wrong with the dishes, I tell her the meat was too big. "We usually chop," she says. "But we didn't have time. It's too busy."

I want to like Chada Thai, but I don't. Even serviceable homemade coconut ice cream can't save this meal.

There's only one thing to say after an experience like this. California, here I come.

Bangkok House, 9501 West Peoria Avenue, Peoria, 979-2103. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday; 4 to 10 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday.

Chada Thai, 15044 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 992-7838. Hours: 5 to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday.

I get a fiery surprise when I chomp down on what I think is a green bean. I have just consumed a whole serrano chile. How hot is hot? I see this explained graphically on menus: one hanky, two hankies, and so forth.

I decline to take home the extra. I just can't stomach wasting Styrofoam on food I'm only going to throw out.


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