My Kind of Thai

Red Thai curry -- or green or yellow -- is hard to beat

"Chick" as a slang word for "female-type person" has always annoyed me, for a reason that anyone else who's ever lived on a working farm will instantly know -- namely that the average chicken has the mental acuity of, roughly, Styrofoam. The corresponding term for "male-type-person," "cat," refers to an animal that is without doubt quite cool. Which is just one of the reasons that the opening of the Red Thai Room last fall, in a space once occupied by a Hooters (a huge HOOTERS spelled out in bright red tile is still visible at the back of Red Thai's open kitchen), has been so welcome. "So the chicks are gone?" one acquaintance inquired. "Not at all!" I assured him. "In fact the green curry with chicken is sensational. Much better than with beef, which was dried out and way too chewy."

But the truly tough beef strips were the only major misstep I found in two recent visits to Red Thai, younger sibling of the original in Hollywood opened several years ago by frequent Thai traveler (and resident for a few years) Craig Gereau. What's especially welcome about Red Thai is that it avoids the common missteps of most Thai eateries in the United States. One is faux-royal palatial décor right out of The King and I; Red Thai is a very exotic shade of red but otherwise modeled more after a rural Thai bungalow, right down to, actually, some chicks -- toy stuffed ones, thanks. And even more wonderful to those seeking authenticity is that Red Thai's food avoids the most common fault of Southeast Asian food even in otherwise appealing places (and Miami-Dade has some terrifically tasty Thai spots): It's tinkered to allegedly one-dimensional American tastes (usually overly sweet). True Thai food is a multidimensional mix of sweet, sour, heat, saltiness, and occasional bitterness, all in balance. And Red Thai's cooks (who are from Thailand) get it right.

Kaeng keiw wan, the aforementioned green curry, is a perfect example. The most complex and elusive of the three types of curry I sampled (green, red, and yellow; there's also mild nutty massaman and amber phanang), the green hit different parts of the mouth successively: a simultaneously sweet and salty first taste; then a delayed hit of heat high on one's palate, running clear to the back of the throat; finally a slight but spectacularly tart tang, in those two sensitive back corners under the tongue, that pulled mouths all around my table into involuntary but appropriate smiles. This curry's solid ingredients included bamboo shoots, red pepper strips, green peas, and holy basil (sharper and more aniseed than common sweet basil), plus a choice, as with almost all of Red Thai's curries and many other dishes, of chicken, beef, tofu, pork, or, for slightly more money, shrimp. (Duck is additionally offered with some curries; Indian-spiced massaman, being Muslim-influenced, traditionally comes with chicken or beef as well as "foreign" potatoes.) I'd recommend avoiding the beef; Thai cooks favor much leaner meat than China's succulently fatty cuts, making dryness hard to avoid in non-ground beef or pork.

Red Thai Room has decided to get a little cocky and ditch the royal décor
Steve Satterwhite
Red Thai Room has decided to get a little cocky and ditch the royal décor

Typically Thai curries are -- or should be -- far less thickened than Indian, but the kaeng dang (red curry) with tofu proved that thin doesn't mean spartan. The sauce was mouthwateringly savory, with a creaminess that must come from coconut milk but tasted as dairy-rich as whipping cream. This sauce had considerable fire, but it was a smooth, sensual heat that perfectly offset the dish's multicolored sweet pepper strips and bland silky tofu triangles. I'd worried that bean curd might be too delicate and would fall apart in thin sauce, but prior deep-frying held them together beautifully.

Yellow curries, typical of Thailand's narrow sea-bordered southernmost region, are naturally influenced by both the cuisine of its southern neighbor Malaysia and by centuries-old Indian spice-trade shipping routes. Additionally yellow curry is considered especially suited to seafood. All the above is proved by gung khra ree, the thinnest but most Indian-flavored of the curries I tried, due to a ton of turmeric. Less multidimensional than the green and red curries, the slightly salty/slightly sweet heat-free yellow sauce was nevertheless a nice complement to the dish's mild protein protagonists, scrambled eggs and perfectly cooked colossal-sized shrimp. The curry also featured a full complement of all-nations Asian vegetables: baby corn, snow pea pods, celery, sweet peppers, onions, and carrots, plus many massaman-like cashews.

As well as doing the above greatest hits the way they ought to be done, Red Thai features some rural "streetfood" and holiday specialties from the north and south not usually encountered in America's Thai eateries (which mainly serve standards from Bangkok, in central Thailand). In much of Thailand, for instance, meat is at most a mere garnish to vegetable dishes, and indeed, though my dining companions were mostly enthusiastic carnivores, the universal favorite dish was purely vegetarian khai fauk tong. According to the menu, this mélange of naturally sweet "pumpkin-squash," summer squash, custardy scrambled egg mounds, golden raisins, and scallions was simmered in soy sauce, but my palate said a lot more than simple soy was happening.

Eggplant-centered pat makua yow was far less oily than Chinese eggplant preparations, but it was less satisfying because the thin sauce, while fine when the dish first hit the table, tended over time to thoroughly waterlog the eggplant slices as well as the dish's additional bean sprouts, sweet pepper strips, onions, and straw mushrooms.

Adventuresome grazers are especially well served at Red Thai, since the appetizer list abounds with unusual items. As well as familiar satays, for example, there's moo da dio, a northern Thai streetfood consisting of satay-threaded strips of marinated deep-fried pork "jerky," dried but quite tender and intensely flavored; instead of satay's peanut potion, the dipping sauce was a dragon-breath red chili. Familiar meat-filled fried keiw tod won tons were fine, but the same ground pork was more interestingly presented in moo salong, meatballs wrapped in thin noodles (a tricky and labor-intensive process, which explains why these are party food) and deep-fried to crispness. Shredded vegetable-stuffed pau pia sound exactly like Chinese egg rolls, but the crunchy egg-pastry skin avoids the usual toughness and the accompanying homemade sweet/sour sauce avoids Chinese duck sauce's usual cloying sugariness. Best were pra jan kadat, wedges of Thai tortilla stuffed sparely with a moist chicken/onion filling more succulent than any south-of-the-border quesadilla I've ever encountered.

For dessert there's a roundup of the usual suspects, if that's what you want: nice deep-fried and glazed Thai doughnuts with a crushed peanut/coconut flake topping; green tea and red bean ice creams, here done as a trio with ginger ice cream. But there are also treats seldom found outside of Thailand (and there mostly for special occasions; fresh fruit in season is Thailand's most common everyday dessert), like khao neo mamuang. A specialty of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, this dessert centers on warm, sweet sticky rice, cooked al dente so the grains are firmer, nuttier, and, well, grainier than normal converted rice. The rice is served in a rectangular patty in a bath of creamy-rich warm coconut milk, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and accompanied by slices of mango and -- a Red Thai innovation -- bananas. It sounds strange, but take the chance. It's all worth it.

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