Cafe Reviews

Family Thais

A deceptively pretty red relish, it bears a resemblance to Mexican salsa. The waiter calls it chile paste, but that's like using the word warm to describe a conflagration. One meltdown mouthful and you're reaching for the pickled jalapenos for relief.

Even as your saliva turns to napalm, however, secondary and tertiary flavors begin to wash over your palate. Your molten tongue notes a stinging saltiness and even a whisper of something sweet. From fit to be tied you rapidly ascend to fit to be Thai'd.

Malee Chu's, the purveyor of this potent paste, is the latest entry in our ever-burgeoning community of cuisine a la Bangkok. If the name sounds familiar, that's because until recently the lady Malee has been a partner in another namesake establishment in central Scottsdale, a business henceforth to be known as Malee's on Main. The two establishments are not linked by a business affiliation but, understandably, they show a strong similarity in their menus.

It is truly great news that another restaurant is now serving the dish named Evil Princess With Chicken. With its remarkable interplay of tastes (lemon, chile, coconut, coriander) and textures (chicken, exotic mushrooms, lemon grass, assorted vegetables), this sensational stir-fried specialty is an education in the multidimensional delights of Thai cuisine and an experience of nearly erotic proportions.

"I could eat this three times a week," remarks one of our party, and the affirmative nodding that follows nearly whips up a breeze.

Some of the other Malee Chu's menu items that score well with my group of first-Thaimers are: Golden Baskets (tiny pastry baskets filled with chicken, corn and Thai spices); Spicy Fried Won Tons (stuffed with seasoned potatoes, peas and chicken, these are greaseless, crispy and pure dynamite with the chili paste); Larb (sort of a Thai taco in which a juicy portion of mint, chili and lime-flavored ground beef is encased in a roll-your-own cabbage leaf); Dancing Shrimp (excellently grilled prawns and crunchy vegetables in a sweet/hot/ acidic sauce); and the ubiquitous Pad Thai (sweet and nutty rice noodles punched up with pieces of chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts and roasted peanuts).

So adventurous and enthusiastic are my Thai tyros that by meal's end they are turning their thumbs down on Gaeng Ped (somewhat tepid beef curry that contains frozen peas and carrots) and Coconut Ice Cream because the Malee Chu's versions "don't have enough flavor." One stalwart fellow diner, bless him, matches my application of the aforementioned chile paste spoon for spoon.

In general I'd rate Malee Chu's cuisine near the top of local Thai restaurants, although a few uninspired dishes like the curry and a dull lemony lettuce salad called Yum Yai do go clunk in the night. Along these lines, one of the oddest aspects of Malee Chu's is a large sushi bar, a cross-cultural inclusion that adds nothing as far as I'm concerned. But I intend to keep an open mind about this, and go back some day to sample the sushi. It's worth noting, however, that on the fairly busy weekend night we visit, not one person stops by the sushi bar.

Of course if it's cross-cultural oddities we're after, there is the fact that Malee Chu's occupies prime space in Scottsdale's Borgata, a medieval-Italian- fort-cum-luxe-shopping-center. Ironically, this fact may work to the restaurant's advantage. Malee Chu's site has been successively occupied by expensive French restaurants and an upscale grill, so the appearance of a quality food establishment where the wallet-weary shopper can be a total sport for about $20 per person, tax and tip included, is likely to be appreciated.

To Malee Chu's credit, much of the elegance of the previous incarnations remains. The color scheme is a rapturous mix of lavender, emerald green and maroon. Etched glass and wall-length mirrors refract light, play with the room dimensions and create mystery to accent the bill of fare.

The service staff is appropriately helpful, communicative but low-key. The dining room is presided over by Malee herself, a serene presence who stops by each table several times during the course of the evening to inquire after her customers' satisfaction. As if the "evil princess" of chile paste surprises doesn't already know . . .

Way on the other side of the Valley, past the Black Canyon Freeway and across several socioeconomic strata, is Erawan, another excellent Thai restaurant under new ownership. As befits its neighborhood, Erawan is a warm and homey establishment decked out in sturdy plastic tablecloths and inexpensive silk flowers and sporting a boundless assortment of inelegant but sincere Thai bric-a-brac. The ambiance is family-oriented and friendly and the food is generally first-rate.

A recent dinner starts with Satay, a traditional Thai dish of skewered strips of barbecued meat served with peanut and cucumber dipping sauces. The meat is tender, flavorful and generously portioned, but what makes the Erawan version of the dish memorable is the novel condiment service. Pretty little green leaf serving boats are used for the peanut sauce, a superior chunky-style version with a forthright sweetness and a nice, slow burn, and the cucumber relish, a potent preparation punched up with a liberal helping of jalapenos.

Heat also is a dominant theme in the Erawan version of deep-fried Fish Cakes. Chile paste is the binding agent of the fish mixture, and chopped peppers are used in the batter, so don't go this route expecting the usual bland fast food fillet. These cakes could be crunchier, but there's definitely a lot of flavor if you're a fire-eater.

Maybe it's the relentlessness of the assault, but the Erawan version of Larb leaves me a little jaded. Here chicken is coarsely ground with red and green onions, then unrestrainedly laced with extremely acidic lime juice and more hot seasonings. When I request some cabbage leaves, as much to daunt the flavor onslaught as for wrapping, the waiter presents an iceberg lettuce wedge which doesn't quite get either job done.

Inexplicably, Erawan chooses to highlight some of its least appealing dishes by drawing boxes around them on the menu. This is true for the Larb and for the Erawan Omelet, a crepe- thin egg wrapper surrounding canned peas, canned carrots, canned tomatoes and canned mushrooms blended with a minimal amount of ground pork. A rich brown sauce served with the omelet is good, but it is not enough to rescue this dish from banality.

It's hard to believe that the same kitchen that cooks with canned mushrooms can come up with dishes as wonderful as Beef Panang Curry and Spicy Seafood Combo, but both of these are truly outstanding. The curry is just beef and gravy, but this is lean and fork-tender meat gloriously lathed with a rich coconut milk and lemon grass- accented curry sauce. The seafood dish is even better, featuring succulent shrimp, scallops and some unidentified fish that seems like a cross between snapper and abalone. The mixture is grilled fajita-style with onions, green peppers and jalapenos, and served with a deep, almost-beefy sauce.

Erawan's creamy coconut ice cream gives no cause for complaint and, as almost always in Thai restaurants, the presentation of the bill puts a smile on my expense account. As my guests and I bid good evening to our pleasantly deferential waiter, we all agree that the long drive to Erawan has been worth it. For those of you who live nearer, go on over and get acquainted with some good neighbors who can cook.

Finally, I need to make a confession that I hope serves as sort of a public service announcement.

A restaurant I had intended to review as part of this week's piece is another new Thai establishment called Tomi's Place. This restaurant is in a difficult- to-discover location off the Black Canyon Freeway near the Deer Valley airport, almost exactly 27 miles to the inch from my front door. I know this because I drove there on a recent Sunday evening with my wife and my mother-in-law.

Well, it seems that if I'd looked really, really carefully at the fine print in the Tomi's Place advertisement, I would have known that only the restaurant's lounge is open on Sunday night. Dear readers, may I suggest that you never drive 27 miles to an unknown restaurant without first making a phone call? I know that's a policy I intend to follow from now on.

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Steven Weiss