Sydney, Australia has “Thai Tanic” and “Thai to Remember.” In Manila, The Philippines, it’s “Thai Kingdom Come.” Arlington, Virginia boasts of “ThaiPhoon.” “Thai One On” is a Salt Lake City favorite. San Francisco diners frequent “Thai Me Up,” while in Mildenhall, England “En-Thai-Sing” is all the rage. Then there’s “Beau Thai” in Portland, Oregon; “Bow Thai” in Margate, Florida; and “Once Upon a Thai” in Chicago, Illinois. When it comes to Thai restaurants throughout the English-speaking world, it’s a wordplay wonderland.
Urbanspoon lists some eighteen Thai or Asian fusion restaurants in Albuquerque specializing in or which include Thai food, none of which evoked once a pun a name. Now operating for more than ten years (it launched on May 10, 2012), Orchid Thai Cuisine is seemingly all-of-a-sudden an elder statesman among Thai restaurants, one of four in the Duke City with more than a decade of continuous operation. It doesn’t seem that long ago Orchid Thai Cuisine was a newcomer creating quite a buzz in Nob Hill.
In its decade plus, Orchid Thai has garnered perhaps more acclaim and accolades than any other Thai restaurant in town. As you enter the restaurant, you’ll espy an “I love me” wall postered with “best of” and “readers’ choice” awards from Albuquerque The Magazine, The Alibi and Local IQ. Naysayers will attribute much of that love to the Nob Hill proximal demographic which “tends to stuff the ballots for area restaurants” while frequent visitors (and there are many of them) will tell you Orchid Thai earns all the recognition it receives.
If awards and accolades were dispensed for colorful murals, Orchid Thai would compete with Saggio’s for best and most in the city in that category, too. Three of its four exterior walls are festooned in colorful murals depicting various aspects of life in Thailand. Not every interior wall is similarly adorned, but one particularly interesting eastern wall portrays Thai kick boxing in all its glory. There’s something to see everywhere you turn in and outside Orchid Thai and the art of presentation continues onto your meal.
Orchid Thai was founded by Seng and Bounnome (Nome for short) Limary, who previously managed the now defunct Hawaiian Restaurant on Louisiana. A native of Laos, Nome has been cooking in New Mexico since 1981 and has extensive experience preparing Chinese and Japanese cuisine, too, but Thai cuisine is his passion. He studied every aspect of Thai cooking–from selecting ingredients to cooking and presentation–from a highly regarded Thai master chef and applies his studies daily in preparing award-winning cuisine.
The menu is a virtual compendium of Thai favorites with more vegetarian options than most restaurants tend to offer. Beef, chicken (extra for all white meat), pork, shrimp and tofu can be added to many entrees, including soups. Some of the popular Thai soups can be made with or without coconut milk. Most entrees are served with steamed rice, but you can pay extra for brown or sticky rice and even more for fried rice. A chili icon denotes dishes which are hot and spicy, but milder versions are available upon request. Lunch specials and lunch combinations are available Monday through Friday.
At the risk of sounding like one of those Russian judges of Olympics past, in three visits to Orchid Thai, my chief complaint has been the lack of balance of flavors. The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter. Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.
Each Thai dish generally has three or four of these flavors harmoniously interplaying with one another in a way that is not only delicious, but balanced. In most dishes, one flavor predominates with the other flavors being complementary. At Orchid Thai, dishes we’ve sampled tend to be somewhat overwhelmed by near cloying sweetness. Call it an Americanization of Thai cuisine, perhaps a realization that many Americans prefer their Thai food rather sweet (maybe so it resembles the candied Chinese foods they like, too). It’s the reason our visits have been infrequent.
One example of the lack of balance sticklers look for is in the taud manpla (Thai fish cakes). The fish cakes themselves are pungently aromatic and delicious courtesy of a red curry influence. Texturally they’re pleasantly chewy, wholly unlike crab cakes, and are fairly moist despite the deep-frying preparation process. These fritter-like cakes are generally served with a tangy chili sauce. Orchid Thai’s sauce is dessert sweet. Not even the finely chopped peanuts floating atop the sauce can lend a savory influence. The cloying sauce also obfuscates any piquancy there may be.
Similarly the Chicken Satay (charbroiled chicken on skewers marinated in Thai spices) is served with two very sweet sauces–a Thai peanut curry sauce and a sweet cucumber sauce. The chicken is marinated in a sauce redolent with turmeric (which also imports its characteristic yellowish hue) and is moist and tasty, deserving of sauces which don’t make them taste like chicken satay lollipops. The Thai peanut curry sauce would have been quite good had the sweetness been cut in half.
Because we’ve known the unbridled ecstasy of crispy duck at Lotus of Siam, the very best Thai restaurant in America, my Kim tends to order crispy duck whenever she sees it on the menu of any Thai restaurant in hopes it approximates the swoon-eliciting crispy duck we love so much. Orchid Thai’s version, Sesame Duck (crispy duck seasoned and roasted with spices and topped with sesame seeds and the chef’s special sauce) falls woefully short, but then so does every other duck we’ve had everywhere else. At the risk of repeating myself, the chef’s special sauce was very much on the sweet side.
One of the most beautifully plated dishes we’ve seen in Albuquerque and the pride of Orchid Thai is a pineapple curry dish served on a hollowed out pineapple half. Swimming in a red coconut curry sauce are chunks of pineapple, potatoes, onions and sweet basil. Our server promised the dish wouldn’t be overly sweet and the chef delivered on the promise. Either that or the Thai hot degree of heat rendered the sweetness impotent. This is a curry dish that’s good from more than an experiential aspect. More than any dish we’ve had at Orchid Thai, it does strike a good balance of flavors.
The one dish we expected to be sweet didn’t disappoint. The mangoes with sticky rice were ameliorated with sweet coconut milk which marries so well with the dense, wonderfully juicy fruit. We mourn when mangoes are out of season because when served with sticky rice prepared well, there are few desserts quite as refreshing and delicious.
Orchid Thai Cuisine is consistently crowded and most of its patrons seem satisfied, if not delighted with their food and their dining experience. There certainly are many aspects of a visit to this colorful restaurant even surly curmudgeons like me will enjoy.
Orchid Thai Cuisine
4300 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Taud Manpla, Chicken Satay, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Pineapple Curry