“There is no good meat that their stupid cooks do not spoil with the sauce they make. They mix with all their stews a certain paste made of rotten prawns…which has such a pungent smell that it nauseates anyone not accustomed to it.” No, that’s not a review published by a disgruntled diner on Urbanspoon or Yelp. Nor is it Gil describing a chile dish to which liberal amounts of cumin were added. This scathing indictment was written in 1688 by Gervaise, a Catholic missionary from France. It was his tactless way of describing a Siamese meal at a diplomatic function he attended.
Much has changed since Gervaise disparaged and insulted the cuisine of what is today Thailand, the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. Gervaise, who would probably attribute the failure to conquer Thailand to the food, was probably not the first and he certainly wasn’t the only person to have criticized Thai food, but few have expressed it with such derision.
Gervaise would no doubt be very surprised to discover how popular Thai food has become in the three centuries since his unsavory encounter. Thai food ranked sixth in a recent survey designed to gauge the popularity of international foods across the world. What’s most amazing about its popularity is that before the 1960s, Thai food wasn’t widely available outside Thailand’s borders. That changed during the Vietnamese War when a large number of foreigners came to Thailand and were exposed to Thai food and culture.
To accommodate pockets of Thai immigrants to America missing their beloved cuisine, small Thai restaurants began opening up in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. By the early 1900s, there were more than 200 Thai restaurants in Los Angeles alone. When my Kim and I moved back to New Mexico in 1995, we could count on one hand all the Thai restaurants in Albuquerque. Today the Duke City boasts of some 23 restaurants serving Thai cuisine. Among the elder statesmen, established in 1995, is Siam Cafe which, going into its second decade, remains one of the city’s most popular Thai restaurants.
May, 2014, saw the launch of Thai Kitchen on the northwest corner of the Alameda and Corrales intersection. The opening of a new Thai restaurant is reason enough for celebration, but even more so when the new Thai restaurant is the younger sibling of Siam Cafe, progenitor of some of the most enticing fragrances in town. Thai cuisine aficionados will recognize the familiar smiling face of Art, the long-time host at Siam Cafe. While his sister continues to own and operate Siam Cafe, Art is bringing the family operation to the burgeoning west side.
The Thai Kitchen is located at the former site of the Saffron Tiger Express, a popular Indian fast casual restaurant. The most striking exterior feature of the Thai Kitchen is the steeple-shaped letter “A” on the word “Thai.” It’s very representative of Thai architecture. The restaurant’s interior may be the most beautiful of any Thai restaurant in town, a melange of soft, bright colors and dark masculine woods. A statue of Buddha is poised on the capacious bar facing the seating area, a mix of booths and tables with good spacing.
Thai Kitchen’s menu is replete with many of the same items featured at Siam Cafe. Alas, Art and his staff apparently don’t watch the Big Bang Theory because the menu doesn’t include mee krob, the favorite Thai dish of wunderkind Sheldon Cooper. Because of the Big Bang Theory’s popularity, mee krob has become one of the most heavily requested items at Thai restaurants. So has another Sheldon favorite, chicken satay with extra peanut sauce which can be found on the Thai Kitchen’s menu.
30 May 2014: You won’t lament the absence of mee krob for very long because there’s so much else to enjoy. Start with Tod Mun Plar, one of the most popular appetizers in Thailand. A deep-fried fishcake (tilapia) mixed with curry paste and fresh herbs, it’s served with a sweet-tangy cucumber salad, a surprisingly effective foil for the strong flavors of the thinly pounded fishcake. Tod mun plar seems to be an acquired taste among many diners. Though it’s among my favorite Thai appetizers, very few of my dining companions enjoy it so I end up being “stuck” with finishing it all (choruses of “awwww” here).
22 August 2014: Shelton Cooper’s beloved chicken satay with extra peanut sauce is on the Thai Kitchen. After a marinade in Thai spices and coconut cream, thinly-sliced chicken breasts are grilled on wooden skewers in a shish kebab fashion. Four skewers of golden-hued chicken “Popsicles” are served with a traditional Thai peanut dipping sauce and a cucumber salad. The contrast between the pungent, smoky satay and the sweet peanut sauce provides a nice balance of flavor though you should exercise restraint with the peanut sauce as too much will make the satay dessert sweet. The cucumber salad is even sweeter. For better results, try the satay sans sauce.
30 May 2014: During an April, 2014 visit to Butcher & Bee in Charleston, South Carolina, this avowed Dagwood clone eschewed a sandwich in favor of larb at one of the highest rated sandwich shops in America. Made well, Larb, the very popular “cooked salad” typically found on the menu at Thai and Lao restaurants, is better than almost anything. Larb is essentially a meat dish, most often made with minced or ground beef, pork or chicken with healthful elements of a salad. The Thai Kitchen’s larb is made with grilled chopped chicken, mint, cilantro, Thai chiles, greens, lime juice and fish sauce. It’s a very refreshing salad with qualities that’ll make your mouth tingle with appreciation.
30 May 2014: During my inaugural visit to any Thai restaurant it doesn’t matter what the acknowledged specialty of the house is, I’m going to order a curry dish. Thai curry offers some of the most olfactory-arousing fragrances of any dish. Prepared well, its flavors deliver on the promises made by the fragrances which precede it. Thai Kitchen’s green curry certainly delivers on its aromatic promises, but not as much on the renowned Thai heat. At “Thai hot” as I ordered it, the curry should have been the overpowering taste sensation. Instead, the green curry delivered on yet another promise of Thai cuisine–that of balance. With a harmony of flavors, the green curry was sweet, sour, spicy, salty and pungent, not in equal measures, but with good balance. It’s a very good green curry.
22 August 2014: The one curry which tends to appeal even to avowed curry haters is Massaman curry which, unless otherwise requested, is milder than other curries. It’s also sweeter thanks to the influx of coconut milk, cardamom, cinnamon and sugar. Xenophobes might be interested to know that one spelling of this curry is derived from an ancient form of the word “Muslim” and in fact, this dish is often referred to as “Muslim curry” in some areas. It was indeed Muslim traders who brought the spices used in the dish from India and the Middle East to the southern portion of modern day Thailand. Thai Kitchen’s version includes potatoes, tomatoes and your choice of pork, chicken, beef, tofu or vegetables. The fragrance emanating from a bowl of Massaman curry is equal to the tongue-titillating flavors of this excellent elixir.
30 May 2014: In four visits to Thai Kitchen, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver has become so besotted by the spicy jungle noodle dish that he has yet to order any other entree. It’s a dish as exotic as its name and even more delicious: flat noodles, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and your choice of chicken, beef or pork infused with Thai spices which impart sweet, savory and piquant taste sensations. The noodles are absolutely perfectly prepared and the vegetables are al dente and fresh. As with the aforementioned green curry, “hot” was discernible, but at this Thai restaurant, pain is not a flavor.
Gervaise would probably have found a myriad of things not to like about the Thai Kitchen (you can’t please some people), but most Duke City diners will thoroughly enjoy the Thai Kitchen, especially if they also love Siam Cafe.
1071 Corrales Road, N.W., Suite 23
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2014
1st VISIT: 30 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Spicy Noodle Jungle, Tod Mun Plar, Green Curry, Larb, Massaman Curry, Pork Satay