My lunch buddy thinks it's hysterical. He, chaser of all things highly spiced, is calling me a wimp. How hot can it be, the stuff served at Touch of Thai, a new cafe joining the burgeoning mecca of ethnic restaurants in the northwest Valley? Most Thai restaurants in the Valley tamp down the heat, worried about scorching the frail palates of the typical American. This place even looks gentle, wrapped in cool mint-colored walls, twangy Asian music playing softly in the background, and centered on a classy bar built of sparkly glass block.
Heat? Ha. He figures we're in for little more than a twist on Chinese food.
Przzchkgah. One bite, and he finds out for himself. Touch of Thai is nuts for the chile peppers. In authentic Thai fashion, the slender red and green peppers are as integral to the recipes as the baby corn, crunchy green beans, water chestnuts, mushrooms and bok choy that make up the phik khing. Locals like him, who've grown up believing the shy seasonings found at one of our original Thai emporiums, the Pink Pepper, to be the real deal are in for a big surprise.
It's been minutes since my last mouthful, and the heat won't let up. Thank goodness for the sides that come with lunch plates: steamed white rice, tightly wrapped vegetable egg rolls, and pork-stuffed fried won tons that look like sea skates with their broad wings. Without the soothing starches, I might not survive the meal.
Yet underneath the fire at Touch of Thai, there's a lot more going on. Thai cuisine is adored by those who've had the real thing for its intense but balanced flavors -- spicy, salty, sour and sweet -- all working together. Touch of Thai masters the art, employing a well-stocked arsenal of essentials like complex curry pastes, mellowing coconut milk, fresh herbs including cilantro, mint and Thai basil, plus peppers, peppers and more peppers.
Consider the calamari, or yahm pla meug. I've ordered it at high heat, and it's practically glowing with nuclear red chile. The gently sautéed squid tidbits could strip paint, but down below, I've found the musical notes of sour lemongrass, tart lime juice and crisp mint. The fish is thick and nicely chewy, and its bed of iceberg lettuce, red onion, julienne carrot and fresh parsley is engagingly crunchy.
And while the tom yahm goong blisters, the hot and sour mushroom shrimp soup also weaves a tapestry of lemongrass, ginger-toned galangal and citrusy-floral kaffir lime leaves.
My buddy is serious now. He wants to know why the gai graprao tastes so much lighter yet fuller-flavored than the same chicken/bamboo shoot/onion stir-fry he gets at Chinese restaurants. True, they're the same ingredients, yet proper Thai cooking avoids thick corn starch in its sauces. The sauce here is brighter, too, like a fine wine that starts with nuances of fresh chile pepper, then finishes with lingering sweet basil.
And why, he wonders, does this curry not taste like the Indian models he's had? Because Thai curry comes in many variations, and all are complicated mixtures containing easily a dozen spices like chiles, garlic, onion, lime leaves, galangal, cumin, turmeric and others. Touch of Thai offers a rainbow: the hearty gang ga-ree gai (chicken with yellow curry, coconut milk, potatoes, onions and carrots); rich gaeng goong (shrimp in red curry with coconut milk, bamboo shoots and green beans); and the compelling gaeng keaw wahn (meat with green curry, coconut milk, bamboo shoots and green beans).
The beauty of Thai food is its layers, and dinner takes some knowledge to grasp the interplay of flavor and texture. Expect everything to arrive at once, the soups, salads, entrees and rice, served family-style for mixing and sharing. Don't expect chopsticks. Do ask the charming wait staff for suggestions; many dishes are described, then followed by a cautious, "Is that okay?" Clearly, they're wondering if Phoenix clientele actually is ready for a step up from typical satay, mee krob, or sweet and sour pork.
Server assistance is helpful, too, since, like many Thai restaurants, Touch of Thai takes creative license with the names and spellings of its dishes. The Thai alphabet has 44 letters and sounds, rather than our 26 -- so we see laab or lahb or larb; they're all the same minced meat salad, though.
A simple formula includes choosing an appetizer, a curry, a stir-fry and a noodle dish, each with different meats and spice levels. The uncertain can certainly order their dishes mild, or select from a variety of absolutely interesting but not overly peppery plates.
My buddy zeroes in on the tod mahn starter, attracted because the menu notes that it's "excellent with beer." True enough, I love how the malty beverage marries with the spices in the tongue-burning fish cakes cooled with cucumber sauce. But I like the larb even better, my choice of finely chopped beef sautéed in lemon juice, red onion and mint mounded on cabbage. It's got tang, mild sweetness, flesh and crunch all in one.
For curries, there's a soothing quality to the shrimp tossed in red curry paste with coconut milk and pineapple. It's not hot, but creamy and sweet. It pairs well with khao phaht prig sohd, fried rice sparked with chile peppers and pork, or with the spicy phaht Thai, skinny rice stick noodles stir-fried with chicken and bay shrimp.
The sauce on the phaht see-iiw has my buddy stumped. The menu says it's a dark soy, but there's something sweet in the glaze atop fat rice noodles stir-fried with beef, broccoli and egg. Sugar, yes, but I'm guessing there's also some nam pla in the mix, the distinctive fish sauce that's such a staple of Thai cooking.
Neither of us knows what to make of white pomfret (not pomfrest as the multi-typo'd menu says). It's refreshing to see such a rare type of fish on the menu, though since it's so uncommon I've never had an opportunity to taste it. The expensive swimmer comes from the Asian coast and is considered one of the most delicious firm fish to be had -- it's the most highly esteemed fish for serving at honorific meals in Malaysia. Touch of Thai prepares it two ways when it has it: with fresh chile sauce, or crispy with onions, peppers, ginger and black mushrooms in a sweet sauce.
This Touch of Thai is terrific stuff. So why, my buddy asks, aren't there more customers? Often, we have much of the room to ourselves, save for a few tables of families, some businessmen, and, on one visit, a lady dictating her living will to a nurse. Whether it's her last meal, I don't know, but she's hooked up to oxygen and giving instructions on where she'd like to be air-evacuated when the time comes.
It's a question I can't answer, except to guess that the Valley's lovers of honest, hot as hell Thai food simply haven't gotten the word yet. And that word would be skhzkzz.