Thai Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico
“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 Zomato 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.
21 April 2018: In his first four visits to Thai Kitchen, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver was so besotted by the spicy jungle noodle dish that he had 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 wide, flat noodles are absolutely perfectly prepared and the vegetables are al dente and fresh. As with the aforementioned green curry, “hot” is discernible, but at this Thai restaurant, pain is not a flavor. Even my Kim who eschews fiery foods is able to handle the heat on this delicious dish.
21 April 2018: The very first time I saw Pad Krapow on a Thai restaurant menu, my mind conjured recollections of the campy 1960s Batman television series in which the Batman character had less muscular definition as Joe Average. “Kapow” was one of the animated sound effects used when Batman punched an evildoer. Since then it’s become my go-to Thai dish on the rare occasion in which curry cravings aren’t calling. Pad Krapow, a magnificent dish which translates to “wok fried” (Pad) “holy basil” (Krapow) is one of the most fragrant of all dishes in a culinary culture in which virtually all dishes are fragrant. “Holy basil,” a versatile herb with medicinal properties, isn’t used on Thai Kitchen’s version, but it is made with traditional stir-fried hot basil, sweet basil, bell peppers, chili, garlic, yellow onions, green onions, mushrooms and your choice of protein (chicken, beef, pork, tofu and vegetables). The fragrant bouquet of this wok-fried classic envelops you from the moment it arrives at your table until you enjoy the last morsel. Fresh mushrooms are another highlight.
15 April 2020: Before exotic fruits became commonplace in grocery stores throughout the Land of Enchantment, those of us who grew up in rural New Mexico learned of them by watching Gilligan’s Island. During one memorable episode which first aired in 1964, a directional-challenged pilot nicknamed “Wrongway” Feldman landed his rickety airplane on the island. Beset by a lack of confidence, Wrongway was unwilling to fly again so Gilligan suggested Wrongway teach him to fly. Using a banana, pineapple, papaya, and a coconut as the controls, Wrongway attempted to teach Gilligan how to fly the plane in secret at night, but Gilligan couldn’t keep the controls straight.
When my siblings and I first watched that episode, we were already well-acquainted with bananas, had enjoyed pineapple slices out of a can as well and coconut flakes on mom’s German chocolate cake, but had no idea what papaya was. It would be thirteen years before this bumpkinly hillbilly had his first papaya at a Vietnamese restaurant outside of Boston. Papaya has since been one of my very favorite fruits especially in the form of papaya salad (spicy green papaya salad with fresh tomatoes, Thai chili, lime juice, fish sauce and chopped peanuts). At Thai Kitchen, it’s listed as “papaya pok pok, a Thai onomatopoeia for hitting something; in this case, the sound made in creating papaya salad. Most of the sounds we make when we eat it are imitations of Rachael Ray when she enjoys a food.
15 April 2020: Just as at any Thai restaurant you’ll visit in Albuquerque (or maybe anywhere across the fruited plain), Thai Kitchen’s walls are festooned with framed photographs of Thailand’s royal family. Thankfully (for the sake of your appetite) you won’t have much time to ponder restaurant walls adorned with the smiling countenances of The Donald or Sleepy Joe. That’s because the menu and the alluring aromas of delightful dishes will compete for your rapt attention. Only after placing your order should you contemplate such existential question as whether or not pad king is named for Thailand’s monarch–maybe even for the king portrayed by Yul Brynner in the classic movie The King and I.
Pad King, more commonly spelled “pad khing” is a very popular stir-fry dish dish, as ubiquitous at Thai restaurants as pictures of the royal family. “Pad” refers to the dish being stir-fried and “Khing” means ginger. If you love ginger (and even if you prefer Mary Ann), this is the dish for you. Thai Kitchen’s version showcases stir-fried ginger with mushrooms, bell peppers, yellow onions, green onions, carrots, and celery. It’s available with chicken, beef, pork, tofu, vegetables or shrimp. That distinctive ginger flavor comes across very well, giving my Kim the impression that the dish is rather piquant. It’s a bit assertive, not piquant. It’s ginger in its most delicious form. Pad Khing is a superb dish offering comforting qualities in every bite.
15 April 2020: “I think I finally figured out what the flavor is in this gum. It’s a little lo-meiny.” That was Jerry Seinfeld in a 1995 episode of Seinfeld titled “The Gum.” Little did he know that the term “it’s a little lo-meiny” would become an internet meme oft used to describe foods–especially Chinese foods–imbued with just a bit of funkiness. Though it really doesn’t have a funky aroma, in some ways lo-mein is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of Chinese dishes. In other words, it gets no respect. It’s often denounced by both Chinese and American food snobs as “Chinese spaghetti,” a dish not as complex or sophisticated as more intricate Chinese dishes.
What lo-mein may lack in sophistication, it makes up for in popularity. Chinese have been enjoying lo-mein for more than 2,000 years and it’s long been one of the most popular Chinese dishes across the fruited plain. While many of us may associate lo-mein with a very specific dish, the name is actually a term for a method of preparing noodles; cooks can use any sort of ingredients or sauce. At Thai Kitchen, the lo-mein is described simply as “stir-fried egg noodles with mixed vegetables.” It’s available with chicken, beef, pork, tofu, vegetables or shrimp. If you describe it as “lo-meiny,” it would certainly be in favorable terms, as in “this tastes like very good lo-mein.” Indeed it does.
21 April 2018: As happy as the prospect of wonderful savory Thai dishes made us, a small sign on the window announcing mangoes with sweet rice made us frenzied with excitement. We should have ordered this seasonal dessert as an appetizer or at the very least, ordered one each of this outstanding dessert. Mangoes with sweet rice drizzled with coconut milk is quite simply one of the best desserts in the world especially when the mangoes are at their peak of freshness as they were during our visit. Flecked between the white sticky rice are long grains of Thai purple rice which has a sweet profile. Then there’s the pool of sweet, rich coconut milk, an elixir for whatever ails you.
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
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LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2020
1st VISIT: 30 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Spicy Noodle Jungle, Tod Mun Plar, Green Curry, Larb, Massaman Curry, Pork Satay, Penang Curry, Pad Krapow, Sweet Rice and Mango, Pad Khing, Papaya Salad