How have exotic ingredients like lemon grass, coconut milk and galangal-staples of Southeast Asia-managed to excite a region that used to embrace unusual ingredients with all the enthusiasm of gun control?
Thai restaurants have grabbed an ever-growing, hard-core following by proving that tasty dishes, even exotic ones, make for happy diners and repeat business. In the case of Thai cuisine, a little familiarity has bred success.
I don't know a better place for the uninitiated to sample Thai fare than Daa's Thai Room.
The first pleasure is visual. The restaurant's three dining areas are decorated in soothing pinks and grays. Eye-catching artificial flowers spill out of sculpted black vases. While a few pieces of Thai art hang on the wall, Daa's mostly displays contemporary paintings and prints. Painted directly on one wall is a monkey swinging from a tree. On a recent warm spring night, under slow-moving ceiling fans, I thought I felt the moist subtropical air.
From force of habit, we ordered appetizers, the only misstep of the evening. It's not that the combo-egg rolls, fried won tons, beef satay, batter-fried vegetables and fish patties-was unpleasant, although the beef seemed too chewy. But the selections were too ordinary to give up valuable stomach room for the really excellent food that followed.
This began with tohm kha kai, a tomatoey hot-and-sour soup blended with coconut milk. It was served in a doughnut-shaped hot pot, the hole" billowing flames from a Sterno heater. Chunks of chicken and straw mushrooms swam in a fragrant sea flavored with lemon grass, lime leaf, galangal, mint and coriander (seeds from the cilantro, or Chinese parsley, plant).
As she ladled out servings, our waitress carefully pointed out the culinary reefs. Lemon grass is for flavor, not chewing. (It's also supposed to relieve intestinal bloat.) She warned us away from the galangal, a peppery Thai ginger that the unwary could easily mistake for an edible morsel. That's a hazard of unfamiliar food. Years ago I bought some beans from a street vendor in Iran. Although they smelled delicious, they were almost impossible to chew and harder to swallow. But I persevered. Then I noticed other customers eyeing me curiously as they began munching-after first stripping off the inedible outer skin. Obviously I was in the same class as someone who would eat an unpeeled banana. The soup itself, however, had us smacking our lips with delight. The oily broth and the coconut milk don't blend naturally, but they coexisted beautifully on our taste buds-a smooth, spicy-sweet treat.
The main dishes appealed as much to the eye as to the senses of taste and smell. Ped yahng is a house specialty, a large portion of roasted boneless duck on a bed of spinach, with a gingery soy sauce on the side. Too often a greasy, fatty mess, this duck was juicy and lean. It's one duck dish where you won't mind getting the bill. The Chinese influence is obvious in sen yai kraprao: wide rice noodles, stir-fried with beef, broccoli, sprouts, mint and red bell pepper. It's kind of like chow mein for grown-ups. Unlike the beef satay in the appetizer, the meat here was butter-soft, a nice contrast to the crunchy broccoli and colorful pepper.
Our third dish showed how Thai cooking incorporates Indian cuisine but maintains its originality. Kaeng khiao wahn kung is shrimp curried in a green chile coconut broth and seasoned with mint and coriander. Along with a generous portion of shrimp were green beans, bamboo shoots and red and green pepper. Pouring the mixture over rice, I caught such a heady whiff of curry that I almost told my wife to dab a little behind her ears. Thai food is renowned for its heat, and the menu gives a quick lesson in how hot is hot. Daa's mild, it says, compares to Mexican hot. We ordered most of our dishes one step up from mild: medium-hot. None gave our pepper-toughened palates any difficulty, although first-timers should probably go the mild route. As a challenge, though, we asked for the green curry shrimp at Thai high heat.
After the first few tentative bites, I shrugged. This was no test, just Thai hyperbole. But after five minutes, moist beads of perspiration gathered on the crown of my scalp. Within a couple more minutes, I was sweating like my dog in August. Daa's heat is sneaky and explosive. I was ready for a cool dessert. The homemade coconut ice cream comes with a variety of intriguing toppings. I opted for the plum wine. The result was sweet and potent, a nice, offbeat confection.
My wife ordered khanom sang khayah, a traditional coconut custard that Thais occasionally bake inside a hollowed-out pumpkin to impress their guests. Daa's less-showy version came with two layers, an eggy custard topped with a coarser flan that was studded with bits of pumpkin. The waitress brought each dessert with two spoons to aid our sampling. The gesture overestimated our fastidiousness but was typical of the thoughtful service we received. We wondered about Thai espresso, and two bucks relieved our curiosity. It came in one of those vase-shaped sake pitchers, with cups the size of large thimbles. However inauthentic, it was just the right note to end the meal: a caffeine jolt doubled by a heavy dose of sugar. At Thai Lahna we ordered an almost identical meal to the one at Daa's. But in every department-service, decor and taste-this restaurant fell just a bit short. It's not that the service was oafish; it just failed to go beyond perfunctory. It's not that the decor disturbed my aesthetic sensibilities; it just didn't move past utilitarian. And it's not that the food lacked flavor; it just rarely grabbed me by the lapels.
Located in one of Phoenix's ubiquitous minimalls, Thai Lahna boasts only about a dozen tables. Most were filled on a recent midweek visit. A few lanterns with wicker shades provided the lighting, and a couple of posters and Thai memorabilia perked up the bare walls.
As at Daa's, the appetizers here didn't measure up to the soups and main dishes. Skip the culinary foreplay and plunge ahead. Here we tried tohm yahm kai, hot-and-sour chicken soup, but without coconut milk. It, too, came in a flaming-hot pot, with a tomato broth, lemon grass, lime leaf, scallions and galangal. But it didn't have as much chicken as Daa's version, and the mushrooms were the canned slices that show up on bad pizza.
Nor did the waitress warn us away from chomping at the lemon grass or galangal. Of course, we may have looked like Thai-food veterans, but it still would have been a nice touch. Happily, the soup itself had the bold, snout-clearing punch that hot-and-sour soup requires. One easily correctable oversight: Bring out some clean plates for the main dishes. Our appetizer dinnerware, smeared with sweet-and-sour sauce, hot mustard and shredded cucumber, had to do double duty. I'm sure we would have been given new ones if we'd asked. But one of the charms of eating out is not having to ask. That night Thai Lahna was offering a duck special, which we eagerly ordered. Crispy duck came with cashews, onions, peppers and carrots in a light brown sauce. But the duck was a little fatty, and the taste was undistinguished. Better choices were kwediaw kraphrao and gang ka-ree gai.
The first was a hefty helping of thick rice noodles, stir-fried in soy sauce with lots of tender beef, firm broccoli, mint and chile pepper. Although it looked like the kind of noodle platter you get at any Cantonese restaurant, the mint and chile gave it a peculiarly Thai twist. The second was a well-stocked yellow coconut curry studded with lots of good-sized shrimp, onions and potatoes. It had an exotic flavor and aroma, redolent of Indian cuisine, and it was outstanding over rice.
Drawn to the bizarre, we pointed to khai yahd sai muu for our final entree, described as a Thai-style omelet on the menu. But it turned out to be just an Eastern-style Western omelet, with bits of shredded pork, onions and peppers folded inside. If there'd been hash browns and an English muffin, I'd have sworn it was breakfast.
Like Daa's, the heat at Thai Lahna works on a time-lapse. We asked for medium-hot, and at first felt impervious to the effect. By the time our main dishes were cleared away, though, we looked like we had just finished playing a set of tennis in August.
Thai Lahna also serves coconut custard and coconut ice cream for dessert, although it doesn't offer a topping like Daa's plum wine. Still, both provide a pleasant way to cool down from the rigors of Thai spices.
If you can stand the heat, get into a Thai kitchen.
YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK THE HOHOKAM FRE... v4-08-92