Krua, on the city's north side, pretty much embodies the idea of a cozy Thai café.
It's a pleasant space, small and tidy, with a handful of tables and booths frequently occupied by guests who tuck into bowls of steaming, fragrant curries, spicy salads kissed with lemon, and stir-fried dishes laden with crunchy vegetables with the familiarity of having had them here before. The service is equally as comfortable, the waitstaff affably jotting down special requests, checking in on tables, and bringing out plates of food seemingly within minutes of the ticket hitting the kitchen.
And given its nearly 80 menu items — a listing of traditional dishes of the country as well as around 20 specialties — the kitchen, or krua in Thai, is a busy place. Some of the flavors are more cautious than you might prefer (and there is the unfortunate imitation crab to consider), but you can depend on the remainder of the meats to be tender, the vegetables fresh, and the dishes well prepared. Plus the condiments on the table allow you to customize each selection as you wish: perhaps with a mini-spoonful of chile paste, a shake or two of ground dried chile pepper or sugar, or, if requested, a bit of fish sauce with Thai chile slices and lime juice.
Krua probably isn't going to be your favorite Thai restaurant, but nonetheless it is one of the Valley's more successful ones. There are enough enjoyable dishes here to keep you satisfied, and several more uncommon ones to keep your curiosity piqued. And if there's something you have in mind that isn't on the menu, just ask. Chances are the krua can make it happen.
You could begin with a quartet of excellent little fish cakes, slightly spicy with just enough firmness and served alongside a chunky relish of cucumbers, chile paste, and chopped peanuts. The deep-fried shrimp rolls, thin crunchy sticks of shrimp tightly wrapped in egg roll skins and served with a sweet chili, are as tough to leave alone as French fries.
Take a detour from the more traditional Thai salads for a plate of yum guhn chiang. The flavors of this Thai sausage salad, featuring rich red pieces of the sweet and sour meat spiked with lemon juice and interspersed with colorful crunchy vegetables, are as carefully balanced as the restaurant's glasses of Thai sweet tea.
Another elusive dish, beef noodle soup, makes an appearance on the menu as well. Less seen in restaurants than it is in the home, Krua's version of this hearty single-serving soup is made with tender pieces of meat, rice noodles, bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions, and fried garlic afloat in a delicately sweet and sour broth for a Thai version of the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. The Thai mother of an acquaintance of mine tells me it's often used as the equivalent of chicken noodle soup when one's under the weather. Her daughter says it's great for a hangover.
There are satisfying standard Thai dishes if you want them — red curry, Thai-style fried rice, and pad se iew, flat, wide rice noodles stir-fried with garlic broccoli, egg, and black soy sauce. If you're feeling more adventurous, you could do worse than nam prik phao, Krua's earthy and spicy housemade chile paste heavy with tender pieces of pork. Or, for seafood lovers, there is very good fried fish. Better than the steamed version (which comes with a 30-minute wait time), the fillets are generously mixed with fresh sautéed garlic, chiles, onions, jalapeños, bell peppers, carrots, and Thai basil for crisp and crunchy bites with a spicy kick.
The best dishes at Krua are the ones with duck. You'll find slices of it, rich and roasted and mixed with broccoli and bok choy in a dark sauce that's a little sour and with the kind of sweetness reminiscent of plums. For the duck curry, the meat is sautéed in a spicy red curry paste, then joined by bamboo shoots, bell peppers, and green onions in coconut milk for a spicy and meaty concoction that's soupier than you might expect but no less satisfying.
Dessert most likely will be sweet sticky rice topped with slices of mango or creamy Thai custard. It's nothing fancy, but like the restaurant, you can rely on it to hit the spot.