Who among us hasn’t learned at least one thing about Thai culinary heritage from The Big Bang Theory? In a 2011 episode, for example, we learned that according to Thai tradition the last morsel of food, the greng jie, goes to the most important person in the room. At least that’s what Sheldon tells Penny when she reaches for the last remaining dumpling. Thanking everyone for the honor, she devours the dumpling. Sheldon’s retort: “I’ve seen pictures of your mother. Keep eating.” Some of us learned that Thai food is meant to be eaten with forks not chop sticks though in Thailand, they don’t put the fork in their mouth. It’s simply a tool to put the food on a spoon which then goes into the mouth.
We also learned that Sheldon, the quirky wunderkind with an obsessive compulsive tendencies orders mee krob and chicken satay with extra peanut sauce on Mondays. Every Monday! As an adventurous diner with polygamous culinary tendencies, the concept of ordering the same meal repeatedly is galling. When expressing my intolerance towards monogamous (monotonous?) diners to my Kim, she quickly knocked me off my high-horse, reminding me that whenever we dine at a Thai restaurant I always order a curry dish. Whether it be Penang curry, Masuman curry, yellow curry pumpkin curry, curry with catfish or Kristen Currie (if she was on the menu), it’s invariably a curry dish our server ferries to our table. She suggested my next curry meal should come with crow.
In truth, curry is a dish to which I graduated after having explored the myriad of other Thai food options. While Thai restaurant menus are replete with zesty, spicy, flavorful dishes, curry dishes are the pinnacle of deliciousness. Curry is Thai food self-actualized, Thai food as good as it possibly can be–complex, bold, pungent and aromatic. Curry satisfies my need for balance and order with sweet, savory and piquant notes in perfect proportion. It’s layered with comforting richness and soul-warming flavor. So why deprive myself?
My Kim also chided me for calling some aspects of Thai cuisine across the fruited plain “Americanized,” recalling that she’s never heard me complain about the portion size of my curry being too small. Americans–me included–tend to like prodigious portion sizes which, in the land of the brave, are easily twice or thrice the portion size served in Thailand. She urged me to remember a wise Thai aphorism: “eat Thai food like the Thai do…sparingly.” Grrr, I hate that she’s always right, but she is my conscience and my buffer.
When my friend and fellow culinary explorer Mary Kroner told me about a new Thai restaurant on Montgomery, my immediate thoughts were about what curry dish to try. Mary had raved about the green curry, one of my very favorite dishes. It took only a brief perusal of the menu to recognize that Thai Heritage may be the Albuquerque restaurant in which my every order might not be curry-centric. In the appetizer section alone, there are a number of dishes heretofore not seen on Duke City Thai restaurant menus. Their genesis is the Issan Province in northeast Thailand. Issan dishes are characterized by incendiary chilies, pungent fish sauces, lip-pursing sour bites and flavorful sauces.
Issan dishes are strewn throughout the menu including two salad dishes Thai food aficionados will recognize: larb (chopped chicken, mint, basil and red onions dressed with lime juice and ground red chilies) and papaya salad (shredded papaya mixed with garlic, lime juice, chilies, tomatoes and ground peanuts). It’s certainly a menu that deserves serious exploration. Your explorations will reveal several dishes—such as orange chicken and pineapple fried rice–more closely associated with Chinese restaurants than with Thai eateries. You’ll find that noodle dishes outnumber rice dishes by a wide margin. You’ll delight in seeing eight desserts on the menu, more than at just about any other Thai restaurant in town. Alas, there are only four curry dishes including a tempting pumpkin curry. Nonetheless, this is a menu in which even those of us who’ve tried everything (or think we have) will find something new.
Owner-chef Onuma Thongthip prepares every meal to order which means you’ll experience fresh Thai flavors at their alluringly aromatic best. As the name implies, Thai Heritage celebrates authentic Thai recipes handed down over generations. The gracious chef, a smiling, peripatetic presence strives to give her guests the experience of the fundamental Thai tastes in every meal you order, the harmonious combination of sour, sweet, salty and spicy. If you’ve ever lamented the over-emphasis of near cloying Thai food in the city’s Thai restaurants, the promise of balanced flavors should excite you. It’s a promise Chef Thongthip has fulfilled very well at her other restaurant, Thai Vegan.
Though tempura—battering and deep-frying vegetables or seafood—is most closely associated with Japanese cuisine, the technique for battering and frying foods was introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun by Portuguese explorers. Appreciating the lighter, less greasy frying style, the Japanese adopted and perfected tempura. With increased frequency, you’ll find other Asian restaurants serving tempura dishes though it’s not as common to find tempura in Thai restaurants.
Intrigued at the prospect, we ordered not just any tempura dish, but Grand Tempura, lightly battered and deep-fried broccoli, pumpkin, zucchini, carrots and shrimp served with tempura sauce. A generous plateful of golden-hued, deep-fried planks arrived at our table. You know the batter is light when it’s almost translucent and you can see the native colors of the vegetables sheathed in that batter—the orange of the pumpkin and the light green of the broccoli, for example. The accompanying “tempura sauce” is very much on the sweet side and would be greatly improved with a bit of acid and salt.
Since first experiencing the transcendent papaya salad at An Hy Quan, Albuquerque’s premier Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, we’ve craved the deeply satisfying balance of flavors in that dish. We often wondered if those flavors translated well to the frying process. Leave it to Thai Heritage to answer that deeply existential question for us. Yes, the menu does include a Fried Papaya Salad. Fried very lightly, a passel of shredded papaya is indeed infused with the flavors we love in its fresh counterpart—piquancy from Thai chilies, pungency from fish sauce, sweetness from sugar, savory notes from garlic and sour notes from lime juice. Sprinkled with finely crushed peanuts and garnished with sliced tomatoes and green beans, it’s a very enjoyable starter.
In small part because my Kim got tired of me referring to Pad Thai, her favorite Thai dish, as “Pad Boring,” she tends to order more adventurously…and perhaps because she got tired of me proclaiming my love for it, she never orders curry. Ordering more adventurously doesn’t mean departing too far from noodles though it may mean ordering something that bites back. Spicy Noodles are a safe—and surprising (considering her heat level preference for green chile borders on “wimpy”) choice. This dish (stir-fried flat noodle with basil, bell peppers, onion, carrots and pork) is actually quite good though the incorrigible mad scientist in me wonders what it would be like smothered in curry.
This is usually the portion of my review in which I wax poetic about the latest curry dish to enrapt me…and by now you’re probably thinking “enough with the curry.” After a long and careful deliberation aided by my Kim’s encouragement, I ordered a non-curry dish (and it didn’t kill me to do so). Thai food fanatics are well acquainted with Tom Kha Kai and Tom Yum Koong, perhaps the most popular of all Thai soups across the fruited plain. Thai Heritage offers a number of alternatives, including a few we hadn’t seen before. My choice was the Tom-Yam Namkhon Noodle Soup (noodles with minced pork, pork ball, crispy wanton, sliced fish cake, boiled egg, pork snack, milk, chili sauce, Thai paste, bean sprouts and mushrooms in pork broth). If it sounds like an “everything but the kitchen sink” soup, you’re not far off the mark. The milky yellowish broth, somewhat reminiscent of Tonkatsu ramen broth, is brimming with deliciousness on and below the surface.
With eight dessert options available, you’d think picking one would be a challenge. Not so! Whenever mangoes with sweet sticky rice are on the menu, it’s soon at our table. We’re at the very tail end of mango season so mangoes aren’t at their peak of sweetness, but even a “semi-sweet” mango is delicious. Besides, the sweet sticky rice goes so well with mangoes that are just a bit on the green, tart side. Mangoes and sticky rice are one of the things we miss most about summer.
Picking two desserts wasn’t much more of a challenge than picking just one. That’s because the dessert menu includes roti. Described on the menu as a Thai-style pancake, it’s more akin to a circular flatbread. Roti is enjoyed everywhere from India to Malaysia. The roti at Thai Heritage is wholly unlike any roti we’ve ever had. Instead of resembling (to some extent) Indian naan, it resembled—both texturally and in terms of flavor—a very think puff pastry drizzled with chocolate. While enjoyable, it’s certainly not what we expected.
It really is hard to “eat Thai food like the Thai do…sparingly.” When restaurants such as Thai Heritage prepare it so well, you’ll want to eat sizable portions. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay this October addition to the Duke City dining scene is that it got me to order something other than curry…and I loved it.
Thai Heritage Restaurant
6219 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 17 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Roti, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Grand Tempura, Fried Papaya Salad, Tom-Yam Namkhon Noodle Soup, Spicy Noodles