Satay is my go-to dish at any Thai or Pan-Asian restaurant. Made with chunks of chicken or beef broiled in spices and served with the crack of condiments -- peanut sauce -- it's a dish everyone from picky five-year-old Susie to granny will adore. Yes, I am a peanut sauce addict, but I've been going through nutty detox lately in hopes of further shrinking my waistline.
I made an exception to check out the satay at two heavy hitters: the modern, independently owned Flo's Asian Kitchen in North Scottsdale and Latitude Eight, a classy Thai grill in a historic district.
In One Corner: Flo's Asian Kitchen
16495 N. Scottsdale Rd. # 5B-2 in Scottsdale
chicken satay appetizer arrived in about five minutes. An Iron Chef would've blanched at the messy presentation, which basically amounted to a heap of grilled, skewered meat chucked in a pile on a dingy white plate and drenched in sauce. Sigh. But don't let first impressions sway you at Flo's.
We each grabbed a skewer and bit into the meat, only to be surprised by a burst of traditional spices including curry and nutmeg.
"Either I'm really starving or this is incredible," quipped my friend. "It's sweet, but not too sugary, which is hard to get with peanut sauce."
The thick, white meat chicken was tender and perfectly cooked, with a slight char on the outside that made the skin crisp and held in the spices. It was delicious. The peanut sauce was savory, with a nice salty finish and a sweetness comparable to the crust of a creme brulee.
I purposefully downed a couple of chicken bites that didn't have any sauce, just to see if the meat could stand on its own. I was rewarded with spicy, juicy meat that could work just as well served sans sauce atop flavored rice or noodles.
We didn't know what to expect from an Asian restaurant sharing a name with the smart-ass waitress from Mel's Diner, but... well, kiss my grits, the grub was good.
In the Other Corner: Latitude Eight Thai Grill
11 West Boston Street #5 in Chandler
Latitude Eight is hidden just south of Chandler's historic downtown square in a tiny space between a bridal shop and a design firm. Inside, the place is IKEA chic, with white walls, modern dark wood tables and pops of color in the flowers and Asian-themed art. On a weekday afternoon, it was very quiet -- just two couples and my solo self.
I ordered the peanut satay appetizer and was rewarded with a gorgeous plate that arrived in just a few minutes. Small skewers of grilled chicken were placed upright like firecrackers in a pond of peanut sauce. Shredded beets and fresh green cucumbers added color and contrast to the plate. It was so pretty I almost didn't want to eat it.
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I reluctantly disassembled the masterpiece and bit into the chicken, sans sauce. It was tender, with a slight crispness and smoky flavor from the grill. The spices were less prominent than Flo's version, though there was a strong curry powder taste -- not surprising given the yellow tinge of the meat.
The peanut sauce wasn't sugary or watery like many of the Thai versions I've had around town. Instead it was thick and rich, with both savory and sweet flavors dancing on my tongue. I enjoyed it so much I practically drowned the meat in it before taking each bite.
Of course, that might have been due to the texture of the chicken. It's what my foodie friends and I like to call "squeaky chicken." I'm not sure what bizarre technique or bad cut causes the chicken at certain Asian places to have a rubbery texture (some suggest over-marinating?), but Latitude Eight's version squeaked against my teeth like an apple. Ick. Even a liberal dollop of peanut sauce and a beautiful presentation couldn't make up for the slick, rubbery meat.
The Winner: Flo's Asian Kitchen, because good taste counts more than beauty.