Thai spice and a very mad fish
By Jennifer Wohletz
So I’m sitting in this restaurant, enjoying the best tureen of coconut-lemongrass soup I’ve ever eaten, and all I can think about is the poor dragon fish circling around the tank next to my table. He looked angry and was obviously depressed--I swear he was suicidal. Maybe he was worried about the coming ’08 election. Maybe he saw the previews for the new Matthew Broderick Christmas movie. I finished my meal, sad for the fish but glad for my soup.
Krung Thai has been around for a while, but new owners Bouavanh Phommalavong and Thiethaile Phanthong have revamped, redecorated and refurnished the entire place from top to bottom using beautiful décor sent directly to them from cousins in Laos. The walls are handpainted a fiery orange-red, the wall tapestries are of fabulous gold elephants and the maroon and gold elephant tablecloths are truly finer than most I’ve seen in upscale restaurants.
“Elephants are lucky,” said Bouavanh.
Each table holds what I call the “caddy o’ surprises.” I sat down, ordered my beverage and noticed four small metal pots in a circle before me. Container No. 1 boasted crushed red pepper, two contained chopped peanuts, the third fresh sliced jalapeños and the fourth garlic-chili oil. Most times I don’t even use the condiments (my complements to the cooks) but it is comforting to know they’re there.
The appetizer menu offers some meaty choices like deep-fried chicken dumplings, stuffed chicken wings, Thai beef or pork jerky, garlic quail and garlic frog legs. Of course, I picked the froggy femurs ($7.95), because there is such a dearth of them in restaurants here.
The soups looked especially good given all the chilly weather we’ve had, in particular the coconut with tofu, lemongrass, mushrooms, onions and Thai spices ($6.95). I helped myself immediately to it when the ornate silver tureen arrived. This soup was loaded with straw mushrooms, strips of onion, hunks of lemongrass and whole kefir lime leaves, and the delicious perfumed aroma it radiated was second only to the creamy savor of its broth.
The frog legs came on a nicely garnished plate, and looked a lot like really fat buffalo wings. They were lightly breaded, garlic-scented and very meaty. The accompanying sauce was sweet chili with a touch of savory fish sauce.
My gastronomic joy was dampened only by an occasional glance over at that unhappy fish. The restaurant’s kind dishwasher was speaking to him in low whispers, and lightly tapping the glass to get his attention. I chose to turn mine back to the menu.
The entrées are divided into Thai curry dishes, rice and noodle dishes, stir-fry and house specialties, with some Chinese and Vietnamese items thrown in for good measure. The house specialties include such wholesome goodness as marinated sliced rare steaks, green mussels in ginger sauce, sautéed frog legs in sweet basil and peppers and ... deep-fried tilapia, which is perhaps not so wholesome, but definitely rich in goodness. Still in the mood for something warming, I ordered the stir-fried ginger-shrimp ($8.50) with ginger root, black mushrooms, green onions and celery. This was another stellar choice--a warm, aromatic brown sauce, rife with plump shrimp and spicy green onion stalks.
I was way too full for dessert, but to my surprise the ladies insisted I try two of their exotic sweets: taro ice cream with sweetened sticky rice ($3.95) and shaved ice with green teddy palm syrup (a sweet green gel made from Pandan leaves, $2.95). The shaved ice drink was a magnificent seafoam green color, which tasted like sweet bubble gum. I loved the purple-blue taro ice cream—who knew such a fine confection could come from a humble tuber?
Owners Bouavanh and Thiethaile both used to work at the Talin market, but wanted to do something on their own. They bought Krung Thai from its old owners and opened the “new” restaurant on Aug. 3 of this year.
“We didn’t eat or sleep in July,” quipped Bouavanh.
I had to inquire about the mental stability of the fish, who seemed to get more pissed off and despondent by the minute. Bouavanh told me that dragon fish are supposed to be good luck, but then told me a family member had owned one that had jumped out of his tank, facilitating his demise.
“What about him?” I asked, nodding toward the one next to us.
“He’s just a mad fish,” she laughed.
Good luck, indeed. I think they should have just spent the dough on a baby elephant.
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Krung Thai, 7923 Menaul NE, 292-9319. Hours: Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri and Sat 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun 4-9 p.m. Price range: Inexpensive to moderate. No smoking, credit cards accepted, booze license in the works.
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