Month: December 2007

Thai Kitchen: Get Out of Your Kitchen (And Go to Theirs)

One of the first things I do in any city I spend any time in is seek out my local Thai restaurant, through a process that involves asking a lot of people and eating a lot of Thai food. I will usually start on my own, going by name alone. Then, when I’ve scratched a few names off my list, I ask a few people whose eating habits I respect (not you, fast food junkies). I usually order the same thing when I’m trying out a place, just to compare apples to apples.
First on my list are fresh rolls (or cold rolls). To the uninitiated, these may seem like unfried egg rolls, but they are quite different. A good one (for me anyway) should have a nice balance of rice noodles, green onion, maybe a thin slice of carrot for color, cilantro and some form of protein, whether it be a thin slice of tofu, chicken, pork, or – my favorite – shrimp. They should be wrapped in a fresh rice paper wrapper – not too dry or they get chewy – and a side of sweet chili sauce or its equivalent for dipping.
The second and third items I order are pad thai (shrimp or chicken) and one of their curries, usually panang. If I need to warm myself up I might go for a soup, a Tom Yum or a Tom Kha. Tom Khas are creamy, spicy and have a sweet coconut milk base while Tom Yums are clear broths, usually with a stronger lemongrass flavor.
During my search I usually avoid the places rated first in various local newspaper contests, reader polls and online restaurant ratings sites. Why? Well, it’s not that I don’t trust popular opinion; I just find that popular opinion tends to be sheep-like in nature. Often times, what I value as the best qualities in a store, restaurant or geographic location are not what the mainstream values. So that’s how Thai Kitchen came to be on the bottom of my lists to try: It was on the top of so many others lists.
According to their website, Thai Kitchen was founded by Ben and Somay Kitchpanich in 1986 behind a small grocery store on TudorRoad. It is still on Tudor Road, but now sandwiched between theTudor Bingo hall and a pizza joint, visually blocked from Tudor byan auto lube shop. While the parking lot may be full, the times I have been there I have found a seat inside the restaurant; the cars are mostly there for the Bingo hall next door. In fact, one time when calling in my order and using my name, the restaurant mistook it for an order from next door.
My first visit passed muster with my usual tests. Actually, it passed with flying colors. In my opinion, their fresh rolls are the best in town. I have been back several times and tried many more dishes. Each one is a surprise in the quality and I’ve grown particularly fond of their duck curries.
While I have gotten in the habit of calling in my order for a pick-up, on a recent visit, I decided to eat in. The restaurant has 16 tables and a couple of two-tops. While it isn’t fancy, there are charms: the open view into the kitchen and a windowed food warmer in front for the lunchtime combos (great deals, by the way). Quirky photos and newspaper clippings of former reviews adorn one wall. Kitschy paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. But each table has asmall vase with orchids inside. Nice.
When dining in, you should enjoy the beverages you can usually only get at a Thai restaurant such as Thai Iced Tea or Coffee. I ordered an iced tea with Longan, a sweet, lychee-like fruit, juiced and crushed into the bottom of the glass. It sweetened the tea and was good to eat after I finished. Metal pitchers full of cold water with matching metal cups are brought out. The metal conducts thecold temperature and is stimulating to your fingers as you pick itup. The coldness actually counteracts the heat you may have on yourtongue if you order something spicy. If India is the culinarycrossroads of Asia, then Thailand is its counterpart in SoutheastAsia. Lots of spices and cuisine styles have influenced Thaicooking over the years. Chinese, Indian and Malaysian foods havemerged to create some of the best vegetable dishes, noodle dishesand curries that Southeast Asia has to offer. Actually, there arefour regional cuisines in Thailand, with curries dominating fromthe southern regions and dishes with lime juice to the north.
On this trip, a cold day, I ordered a hot soup, Tom Kha seafood.It was full of shrimp, squid and imitation crab. Chili oil pooledon top of the soup and it was spicy and sweet. The imitation crabhad a tendency to unroll and was awkward to eat if it remainedwhole, but it still was delicious. For an appetizer I ordered thefish cakes, patties of fish with thin strips of kaffir lime leavesand green onions served with a sweet chili sauce. They wereabsolutely delicious when hot but had a tendency to get a littlechewier as they cooled. Of course, when eating with a group, whichI wasn’t, they wouldn’t have lasted long enough to get chewy.

For my main course I switched up and tried a different curry,the Shu Shee Kai, chicken sautéed in red curry paste, coconut milkand fresh basil. The taste differed significantly from the Panangcurry, characterized by a somewhat sweeter base. With a few hotpeppers thrown in for spice, the curry was divine. And on a coldnight in Anchorage, was enough to warm you all the way home.
Finally my search for my favorite Thai restaurant has ended, and it also happened to be just about everyone else’s favorite too.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, December 5, 2007