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The Phoenix area has a lot of Thai restaurants, at least two dozen. Isn't this just a little strange? After all, Thailand's not exactly one of the world's largest or most populous nations. And it's easily 10,000 miles away from Arizona.

So what's the connection? Do Thai restaurateurs consciously set out from Bangkok with the notion of taking over turf from the taco? Have all the years of Mexican food taught Arizonans to appreciate the virtues of any chile-rich cuisine? Or are we just fond of any meal in which the average price of an entree is around five dollars?

I try to imagine a restaurant critic in Thailand trying to make sense of a sudden chimichanga glut in the market cities along the Phnaya River. But of course there is no such glut. I don't even know if there are any market cities along the Phnaya River.

Here's what I do know about Thailand: * It used to be called Siam;
* Yul Brynner used to be the king;
* It has a Club Med and is a featured location in the current SI swimsuit issue.

Thanks to the proliferation of Thai restaurants in the Valley, I now also possess at least one useful fact about Thailand: This is a nation with great food style. It will be a pleasure to share some of the local proof.

One thing before we begin. Since we will be discussing nearly a dozen restaurants this week and next, and since all Thai restaurants are no more equal in quality than, say, all Mexican restaurants, we will extol their relative virtues through the extra-special clever Thai-stick rating system. Four Thai sticks is the best. One is the worst. No Thai sticks is a bummer, man, and means the restaurant is closed, or should be.

(As for the sociological stuff mentioned earlier, hey, don't look at me. I'm just the restaurant critic.)

Everything you really need to get started as a Thai-cuisine fan can be found at Daa's Thai Room. Just go with three or four people and order family-style dinner "B." This not only includes such delectable specialties as Kai Mamuang Himaphahn and Kaeng Khiao Wahn, but they also throw in the Ai Teem Kathi Sod and the only thing you have to pronounce is "B." As you enjoy spicy fried fishcakes, hot and sour soup, chicken and cashew stir fry, sweet and sour pork, barbecue skewers of beef with peanut sauce, and homemade coconut ice cream, you're likely to experience a sense of familiarity as well as extreme pleasure. In service style, seasonings and ingredients, Thai cuisine is very similar to Chinese cookery, especially that of the Szechuan and Hunan provinces. Add to this the curry preparations of India, a South Seas- evoking use of coconut and pineapple, and a few signature seasonings such as lemon grass and concentrated fish extract, and you have the general drift of Thai dining.

What sets the cooking at Daa's apart from and above most of the Valley's other Thai restaurants are those universally laudable ingredients of quality and taste. Although chiles are a significant part of this cuisine, their sheer muscle is never allowed to hog the spotlight in any one dish. This is spicy food (at Daa's, as at all Thai restaurants, patrons select the desired degree of heat in their food), but it is always far more than a monochromatic liquid-fire experience.

A lot of dishes might be singled out in this regard, but I am particularly fond of Tohm Yahm Kai, a hot and sour soup with lemon grass, chicken and mushrooms. The seasoning for this soup is a masterful blend of fresh lemon grass, parsley, ginger root, rice vinegar and hot oil, in which all are apparent but none dominates. A talented Thai touch is also revealed in a dish as familiar and tame sounding as sweet and sour pork (Priaw Wahn Thai). This is an "adult" version of the Chinese dish, in which a subtle sour theme is allowed equal opportunity with an equally subtle sweet, and sauce and pork are mercifully free of a cornstarch clobbering.

My guess is that you can't really order a bad dish at Daa's. Beyond the food, the service is presided over by the owners so it is caring, dignified, competent and totally informed. The place is also a pleasure on the eyes, arty without being overdone, featuring a white and pink motif dotted with good abstract paintings.

If you're only going to Thai it once, Thai it at Daa's.

RATING: add 4 Thai sticks graphics

The Pink Pepper chain seems hell-bent on becoming the Thai equivalent of Garcia's. Like the latter, these places are bright, lively, clean, attractive and very professionally run. In both chains, however, the food takes a walk on the wimp side.

Oh, they'll make it hot for you if you want it that way. And the menu pretty much lists the same food you'll find in other Thai restaurants. But there's just no hiding a less-than-inspired reliance on ingredients like moonlight mushrooms, iceberg lettuce and carrots, as well as an obvious frugality when it comes to protein portions. Yawn.

One dish I do like here is Mus Sa Mun, a curry preparation that is more like a good chicken stew with chunks of potato, carrot and bell pepper. Like many Thai curries, it is flavored with coconut milk. This ingredient does not always please when it dominates, but that's not the case here--it's used in just the right proportion.

The Pink Pepper is also the place where I was introduced to Mee Krob (almost never spelled the same way in any two Thai restaurants, but served in all of them). It consists of crisp rice noodles stuck together with a sweet syrup and served with small pieces of sauteed meat. What's great about this dish is that everyone describes it as "Krispie Treats with chicken."

As can be said for most of the Pink Pepper's food, unfortunately, other Thai restaurants make better versions of Mee Krob. In fairness, though, you will not find another Thai restaurant serving (a better) blueberry cheesecake or playing (a better selection of) New Age tapes.

Doesn't Arizona love a chic new trend? Especially when the room is so hip and the food is so unthreatening?

RATING: add 2 1/2 Thai sticks graphics

One of the most recognizable signature dishes of Thai cookery is satay, increasingly referred to on American menus as Thai sticks. While there are quite a few flavor versions of this barbecue-style dish, the central ingredients are always the same. Small pieces of meat (beef, pork and/or chicken) are pounded thin, hit with seasonings, placed on skewers and cooked (usually charbroiled, but sometimes smoked and/or sauteed), then served with peanut dipping sauce and cucumber relish.

A fine place to savor satay in the Valley is Thai Rama. The cooks at this restaurant are sages of the spice rub, and their barbecue meats are extremely flavorful as a result. This satay is also terrifically tender, and paired with a just-hot-enough peanut sauce and a just-sharp-enough cucumber relish to make the entire composition perfect.

I'm also extremely fond of another barbecue dish at this restaurant, Muu Daeng. It offers a generous portion of sliced pork, cooked to tender perfection and made to bloom with an anise-laden spice rub. I especially like its intensely purple-hued sauce, a nice sweet contrast to the spicy smoked pork.

Thai Rama is not a big-on-looks restaurant, although it's no stretch to call it clean and maybe even pretty in a folksy vines-and-vinyl sort of way. It is a restaurant that has been in business for more than seven years. Considering the overall food quality, I have to say deservedly.

RATING: add 3 1/2 Thai sticks graphics
The Royal Barge is the most distinguished-looking of the Valley's Thai restaurants. A rich blue motif, expensive and fragile-looking Oriental objets d'art, etched-glass breakfronts and a host of other fine design features immediately raise the expectation of a Thai cuisine-as-art experience.

The expectation doesn't last long. On the menu, dishes actually have names like Grand Yummy and Crispy Phoenix. Worse yet, the menu "indicates your favorites" in the margins with those insipid have-a- nice-day smiley faces.

This device turns out to be quite appropriate since the Royal Barge food actually is insipid. Like the restaurant itself, the food looks great, but its chief taste characteristic is lack of taste. A perfect example is a dish called Pra Ram, boiled variety meats served on steamed spinach with an incredibly anemic peanut sauce. Bleh.

In a sampling of eight different dishes at this restaurant, the only exception proves to be Pad Thai. This is another mainstay of Thai cuisine, soft rice noodles sauteed with meat and vegetables in a savory sauce. The sticky chock-full-of-garnishes version served at the Royal Barge is so good that one can't help wondering whether it is take-out food from another restaurant.

The Royal Barge is the most expensive of the Valley's Thai restaurants, which also establishes it as the most brazen.

RATING: add 1 Thai stick graphics At the other end of the spectrum from the Royal Barge, in every conceivable way, is D's Thai Food. This is just a little take-out joint connected to a Unocal station on McKellips Road. Its key design features are a stove, a soda cooler, a half-dozen plastic tables and a bunch of handmade signs proclaiming "Best Thai Food."

Well, it may not be the best, but it is indeed very good.
D's is the enterprise of a proud American-Thai woman who, when given an ultimatum by her husband of fourteen years to choose between her marriage and opening a restaurant, took about three minutes to pack her pots and pans. Indicating that this whole Thai movement might be far less subtle than suspected, she explains that many Asian-Americans are moving to Arizona from California because of the weather and the real estate prices.

Anyway, D's makes a great chunky-style peanut sauce for its satay, a wonderful Pad Thai loaded with fresh cilantro, and an extremely challenging curry. Not to be missed, though, is the Laub Nua, a ground beef dish seasoned with lime juice, hot oil, mint, basil and cilantro. This mixture is spooned onto fresh raw cabbage leaves and is truly sensational.

If you want to avoid driving by the restaurant several times, remember--it really is attached to the gas station. Maybe this is some sort of prototype arrangement to help the oil companies with lagging petroleum prices. If anyone spots, say, a Mobil station with a Moroccan restaurant, please call me.

RATING: add 3 Thai sticks graphics

Next week: Satay tuned for more of your favorite Thai restaurants, including the Siamese Cat, Malee's Thai Gourmet, Char's, Tuptim, and Siam.

Daa's Thai Room, 7419A East Indian Plaza, Scottsdale. 941-9015. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Pink Pepper Thai Cuisine, 1941 West Guadalupe, Mesa, 839-9009; 4967 West Bell, Phoenix, 843-0070; 2003 North Scottsdale, Scottsdale, 945-9300. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Thai Rama, 1702 West Camelback, Phoenix. 246-8622. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Royal Barge, 8220 North Hayden, Scottsdale. 443-1953. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

D's Thai Food, 2431 East McKellips, Mesa. 969-0087. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

It is always far more than a monochromatic liquid-fire experience.

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