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Budget Beat: Thai Basil

By Jay Bennet

It's amazing how many Thai restaurants exist in the Valley. I've been to several but have touched only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and I'm pleased to report that none of them flat-out sucks (well, there is a certain Thai place on Camelback that provided such an unpleasant experience that I bolted before even ordering the food). Still, there are a lot of dandies out there: Thai Elephant, Thai Lahna, Thai Hut, etc. They all have warranted repeat visits.

Still, there's one Thai restaurant that I find myself gravitating to, and that's Thai Basil, which has a handful of locations around the Valley, including one on Central, near Thomas, and the one I visited for the purposes of this Budget Beat, on University Drive, just west of Mill Avenue, in Tempe.

On a recent Sunday night — after the dinner rush, I might add — the University Drive location was doing a brisk business. That's a good sign. And whenever the co-workers and I hit up the Thai Basil location on Central Avenue for lunch, it's always packed. Another good sign. Let's face it: This family of eateries delivers the goods.

The missus and I started with some spring rolls, a deep-fried mix of cabbage, corn, vermicelli and served with an awesome sweet dipping sauce that had chopped peanuts in it. Needless to say, we scarfed down all four of these things posthaste.

Spring rolls: Sometimes four just ain't enough. Our entrees were no-frills and no-nonsense and just simply good. She had the pad thai with tofu (I should note that we like to try the standards before we deem a place worthy of venturing deeper into the menu) and found it to be a traditional but tasty serving of pad thai. "Better than most" is, I believe, how she put it, but not quite as good as the dish served at Fate (possibly the gold standard in these parts). It was hot, fresh-tasting, and flavorful, with just enough kick.

Pad thai: A go-to dish if ever there was one. I opted for the restaurant's signature dish, thai basil with chicken. I highly enjoyed this entree: super-fresh vegetables such as zucchini, carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, and onions, as well as bamboo shoots and, of course, whole sautéed fresh basil leaves, all in a mildly spicy brown sauce. As you might imagine, the basil is what makes the dish. I dig that taste of sautéed basil so much that I'm having a hard imagining ordering anything else on my next visit.

Thai basil: Hot, fresh, and totally basil-tastic. (Photos by Laura Hahnefeld)

High marks to Thai Basil for presenting a menu with a lot — but not too many — options. Often, Asian restaurants will hand you a menu that is downright daunting. Information overload, if you will. I like a small menu. It tells me a restaurant is confident in preparing just a few truly worthwhile dishes.

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Both the pad thai and thai basil were about $9 each — a darn nice price for plentiful, fresh servings.

My recommendation: Check out Thai Basil during lunch, when they also toss in a small side salad before you even order. It's nothing fancy — just some iceberg lettuce and a sort-of French dressing — but it's a nice touch that I found myself missing at dinner. Also at lunch, they throw one of those spring rolls on your plate. And the lunch price is about a buck cheaper, to boot.

Like I said, there's no shortage of Thai in this town. Thai Basil seems to recognize this, so it makes sure it's doing things right while still keeping prices down. What more do you want?

Thai Basil 403 W. University Dr., Tempe 480-968-9250

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