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Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down

Taste of Thai
213 N. Peters Road

by Ally Carte

Let me be the first to admit that I am in over my head—and head over heels in love—with Thai food. It's not just that it is a complex cuisine, the difficulty is more that it seems somehow alien while still remaining oddly familiar. And, as I've been discovering, darn near impossible to pin down. Once you get that first heady taste of a multi-layered mouthful of, say, tom yum goong soup, with its strong, competing flavors of both the sea and musty citrus, you lose the ability to figure out exactly what it is you're tasting. It's like a gustatory brain teaser.

Which is, according to Su-Mei Yu, Thai chef and author of Cracking the Coconut, what Thai cuisine is all about—the ideal of arroy sanuk, or, delicious fun. "Saltiness is never simply salty," she writes, "but part of a wide range of saltiness—salty like the sea, or with a fishy aroma, or earthy." And it's part of the fun of Thai dining to figure out just what kind of "salty" or "sweet" or "hot" you're dealing with.

Thai cuisine is often described as a mix of Indian and Chinese; look at a map and you'll see why those are the odds-on influences. But over the years, this Asian food has developed interesting layers, spurred, perhaps as some theorists believe, by the population's addiction to chewing Betel nuts, which, in addition to being a mild stimulant, also numb the inside of your mouth. Chefs kept adding more and more flavors to compensate.

While that may or may not be true (and, if it is, would American cuisine grow increasingly complex if more of the population smoked?), it does make for a deliciously fun idea to play with.

West Knoxville's Taste of Thai isn't much to look at, wedged as it is into a strip mall, next to a giant sporting goods store. The owners haven't really improved much on the acoustical ceiling/bright walls decor. While there are some personable touches here and there—like a golden table-top-sized tree—you could be in almost any hole-in-the-wall restaurant, about to be served anything from burgers to falafels.

But the smells wafting from the kitchen in the back tell you that what you're going to be eating will be grand. One second the air will be filled with the pungent tang of freshly smashed garlic, the next with the fresh green scent of basil. It's almost as if there are 10 or 12 chefs back there, all fighting it out to see who'll get to actually season your food—when, in reality, they'll all get to have a hand in it, and the result will be perfectly balanced and fiercely unique.

Like the classic pud Thai with tofu ($7.50). Chewy rice noodles cozy up with crunchy bean sprouts, refreshing green onions, ground peanuts and egg. The blocks of bean curd, generally tasteless on their own, soak up the salty, fishy and slightly sour sauce, and the texture contrast between the noodles and tofu makes for an interesting mouthful, especially with a squeeze of lime juice.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Thai food is fiery hot. The pud Thai isn't even remotely spicy (but, given the range of flavors competing for your attention, you could hardly call it bland), and the pik king pork ($7.95) is a stir-fried mix of pork, green beans, and fresh basil, covered in a mildly spicy sauce. The basil cuts through any heaviness that the pork might bring to the dish, leaving your palate refreshed and clean. The chicken in hot garlic sauce ($7.95) isn't even as spicy-hot as the pork, but it is garlic-hot and piquant enough to curl your toes. Cut with rice and the bitter tang of some broccoli florets, this dish is a standout.

If you truly crave heat, however, take on the green curry ($7.95), a spicy, soupy concoction full of basil, Thai eggplant, sweet bell peppers, and creamy coconut milk, which serves to take the sting out of the Thai peppers that give this dish some muscle. It's not the hottest thing in the world—though I'm sure the kitchen would be more than happy to bump it up from American hot to Thai hot—but it will make your tastebuds seek out air conditioning. Still, it's well-balanced, with the textures of the crisp-tender peppers and chewy-tender beef bouncing off each other like charged electrons.

As for the smaller—in size, not taste—offerings on the menu, the chicken satay ($5.95) is a great starter, paired as it is with a cooling cucumber sauce and a warm peanut sauce. The Thai Iced Coffee ($1.75) is a great antidote to a sticky summer's day. But not to be missed is the homemade ice cream ($2). On the night we went, the flavor was green tea (ginger and coconut have also been on the menu), which, while not sweet as you'd expect, simply knocked us out with its delicate tea aroma and taste incongruously paired with a dreamy, rich dairy base. Delicious fun indeed.

June 28, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 26
© 2001 Metro Pulse