Thai Cuisine II
A garden of surprises
Stepping into the pragmatically named Thai Cuisine II is like taking a 15-hour plane ride in the blink of an eye. While it’s not exactly Thailand inside, the dining room is a pleasant sanctuary, warmly painted in earthy red and sunset orange, and hung with near-florescent paintings of colorful, idyllic scenes. You quickly forget that you just walked into a red metal roofed A-frame that looks like an old Dairy Queen.
A caddy of sauces at the bar hints at the kitchen’s seriousness. There’s a chile-garlic sauce I could eat with plain rice and be happy, and some mellow pickled onions and peppers. There’s also a sweet, salty fish sauce with thinly sliced hot chilies: After a pungently savory beginning comes a creeping heat that takes its slow, torturous time—like the suspense of discovering a hit has been put on your life. If there were a Best of Burque category for house-made condiments at restaurants, this would be a contender.
The menu’s large selection of salads is a strong suit. The green papaya salad (som tum) was crispy and delicate, just fishy and limey enough, if a bit small. The trout salad, meanwhile, was huge in every way. A large, tempura-fried piece of red trout flesh was buried under a colorful and fragrant salad, topped with roasted peanuts, and drenched in a tangy tamarind dressing. Not to be missed.
To test the small sushi menu, I tried a New Mexico roll (green chile, avocado and krab) with a leaf-shaped mound of wasabi resting beside it. It was big and adequate for $5.50, though Thai Cuisine II won’t often be confused for a sushi bar. A bottle of palm nectar made from the sap of coconut trees was an interesting and refreshing drink, velvety sweet and syrupy without added sugar. A side order of sticky rice was delivered in a gorgeous woven bamboo container. Beneath a tight-fitting lid, the rice was enclosed in a Ziploc sandwich bag (which was somehow endearing). While a little unwieldy, the sticky rice was magnificently absorbent with sauces like the trout’s tamarind salad dressing.
If there were a Best of Burque category for house-made condiments at restaurants, this would be a contender.
One afternoon, a phoned-in take-out order took disappointingly long time—20 minutes, and the restaurant wasn’t very busy. It seemed like they didn’t start making the food until I got there. Another woman arrived after me, and I watched her experience the same thing.
I finally made it home with some very good pad thai and perhaps the best tom yum I’ve had in town. The sweat-inducing, sour-and-spicy tomato soup was potent and assertive with the right balance of tamarind, galanga, ginger and lemongrass.
Pad kee mow didn’t come together as perfectly. The stir-fried wide rice noodles with egg, chiles, tomatoes, garlic, basil and broccoli looked good on paper, but it just didn’t work. (Although if I wasn’t going back and forth between it and that pad thai, I may not have noticed as acutely.)
On my next visit I ordered guay teow soup, a kind of Thai-style pho that comes with chicken or veggie broth. You also get your choice of proteins, and I went with mussels. It was a satisfying noodle soup, hitting my pho-spot in a maritime way, even if the side salad was weak compared to what you get in a Viet place. Pad cha, a stir-fry flavored with krachai rhizome, was chock-full of snap peas, zucchini, carrots, peppers and basil. Rhizome is a type of root found in spreading plants like bamboo, and it lent the dish a mild gingery flavor that I’d never experienced. Pineapple red curry was spicy, sweet, fragrant and creamy with coconut—basically, what I want in a curry.
In fact, despite a few stumbles, this place is what I want in a Thai restaurant. I left curious, with many intriguing menu items urging me to hurry back. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what that A-framed kitchen can do.
• Trout salad with sticky rice
• Pad cha stir-fry
• Tom yum soup
4201 Central NE
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday thorugh Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Price range: Lunch specials (served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) start at $5.95 and include a tasty little bowl of lemongrass soup, vegetarian egg rolls with a honey-peanut dipping sauce, and a dessert of warm tapioca coconut porridge and fresh fruit. Other prices top out at $11.95 .
Ambience: Pleasant and cozy
Vegetarian options: Abundant