New Mexican men can be so haughty. (I don’t include New Mexican women in this categorization because they’re generally smarter.) We laugh at what Californians, Arizonans and especially Texans call “chili.” We pride ourselves on machismo, some of which is on display even when we eat out. We never ask if the chile is hot. We assume (and hope) it is so we can prove how tough we are. We question the manhood of any New Mexican who prefers his chile “mild.” Mild chile is for children and law enforcement officials in Uvalde, Texas. Give us chile with the piquancy of napalm or volcanic lava. Give us chile even Satan can’t eat.
Yeah, right! I’ve seen New Mexican men wheeze and sputter, their eyes watering with tears as they beg for sweet, merciful death as they try to eat Thai food…and that’s not even at the “Thai hot” level of heat. Thai peppers provide another level of heat, one that makes New Mexican chile seem like bell peppers in comparison. Consider that sacrilege if you will, but Thai peppers have kicked even my tail and I’m pretty heat tolerant. I still order the “Thai heat” level at most restaurants. Over the years, I’ve observed that Thai spice levels have been somewhat dumbed down for the wimpy American palate. Either that or I’m truly a volcano eater.
Thai spice heat is categorized in levels–usually one to four or one to five–for consumer awareness (not that some consumers heed the implied warning). One wonderful (and very necessary) trait among Thai spice levels is that they’re easily customizable for preference or requirement. Order a lower number level for a mild experience. Order “hot” if you can handle the most piquant New Mexican foods. Order “Thai hot” if you have a death wish or your mouth and esophagus are coated in asbestos. I’m absolutely serious and speak from experience–“Thai hot” can make you beg for mercy.
Because of their wide variety, Thai peppers typically range from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units. Compare this to a typical jalapeño pepper, which ranges from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units. That makes the average Thai pepper about 15 times hotter than the average jalapeño.. New Mexico’s sacrosanct chiles are considered a “mild” (wimpy, wuss, pansy) heat chile, measuring 800-1,400 Scoville Heat Units. By any measure Thai peppers kick sand in the face of New Mexican chile. Next time some braggadocio you don’t especially like boasts about his heat tolerance, invite them to a Thai restaurant and order their dish at the “Thai hot” level.
If you do like that braggart, take him to Thai Spice in Rio Rancho and order something at a “medium” heat level. You will, after all, hope to hook him on the absolute deliciousness of one of the world’s most popular cuisines. Thai cuisine isn’t solely beloved because of its mouth-numbing piquancy. It truly is one of the world’s very best cuisines. Thai Cuisine may be brand new to Rio Rancho, opening its doors in late May, but it’s got a significant pedigree and it lives in a very familiar location, one which is auto-programmed on every vehicle of every denizen of the City of Vision.
For those of you not intimate with Rio Rancho, Thai Cuisine is housed in the complex which once served as home to the legendary Smokehouse, a bastion of bodacious barbecue for a quarter century. The Smokehouse has been closed for a decade now (22 June 2013) and two other barbecue restaurants–Stack House BBQ and Rub-N-Wood–gave it the old college try but neither could duplicate the Smokehouse magic. When visionaries (residents of the City of Vision) found out Thai Cuisine was to launch at the former home of the Smokehouse, we waited patiently for city bureaucrats to approve the far-too-many permits to allow the restaurant to open. Seriously, it took months for the slow wheels of meddlesome government to move fast enough for those of us wanting to try the mettle of Thai Cuisine’s Thai heat.
What used to be a separate dining room for overflow crowds has been converted to the dining room. The original dining room now houses the counter where you place your order. All the trappings which once screamed “this is a barbecue joint” are gone (sadly including the irresistible aromas of meats smoked low and slow). Decorative accoutrements are thoroughly Thai including the de rigueur photograph of the Thai Royal family. Though you may place your order at the counter, it will be delivered to your table. Fortune smiled upon us when our server was the fabulous Jenn, a Washington state transfer with a beautiful smile and effervescent personality.
Jenn told us Thai Cuisine is the sister restaurant of the original Thai Cuisine on Montaño and Coors. For years, the owners of Thai Cuisine – Rio Rancho owned and operated a restaurant also named Thai Cuisine in Santa Fe. They had to get up at unholy hours to drive to The City Different so they could prepare for the rigors of the day. Rio Rancho made a lot more sense. It makes sense for us, too. Thai Cuisine is only about eight miles away, not even as far as my former daily commute to Intel.
Because of our familiarity with the menu at the original Thai Cuisine, it didn’t take us very long to decide what to order. Frankly, the menu at Thai Cuisine – Rio Rancho is very similar to the menu at almost every Thai restaurant you’ll ever visit. As with Vietnamese restaurants, you probably won’t ever find a bad Thai restaurant. Thai Cuisine (all locations) is consistently excellent. Heat levels are : no chili, mild, medium, hot, or Thai hot. Lunch specials–which include an egg roll, daily soup and Thai dessert–are served Monday through Friday from 11AM to 3PM. There are thirteen entrees on the lunch special.
The dinner menu is much more expansive in terms of entrees. Both lunch and dinner menus list eight appetizers, again very familiar to aficionados of Thai cuisine. Perhaps indicative of Thai Cuisine – Rio Rancho’s heat levels, the fish cakes (deep-fried fish cake served with homemade cucumber sauce), a spicy (flame) icon is depicted after the description. When my Kim can tolerate any heat, you know it’s not especially hot at all. Ingredients used to make fish cakes include curry paste and fish sauce, two heat-generating components that barely showed themselves. Despite not having much discernible heat, the fish cakes are quite good and the cucumber salad is fantastic!
My bride has never tried to compete with me when it comes to eating spicy foods though she’d certainly kick my butt in terms of sweet foods, especially chocolate. Her favorite Thai dish has long been Pad Thai, a dessert-sweet entree that’s not a traditional Thai dish. In fact, Pad Thai was introduced to the United States by Chinese immigrants as a nod to the American palate and penchant for sweets. Ideally, Pad Thai should hit all the flavor notes – sour, sweet, bitter, salty and umami. I can’t get past the sweet, but my Kim loves it so maybe someday she can write my review of the dish.
Not nearly as sweet as Pad Thai (or my Kim) is massaman curry, a dish made with plenty of coconut milk which accounts greatly for its sweetness. Massaman curry is a bit different than other varieties of Thai curry because it features such spices as cinnamon, cardamom and cloves and is topped off with peanuts and potatoes. It’s rich and creamy though relatively mild in flavor–even at the “Thai hot” level. Be forewarned–when Gil says something’s “mild,” your taste buds may interpret it differently. Massaman curry remains one of my very favorite curries with Thai Cuisine’s version being among the most memorable.
Denver’s Westwold describes the process of deciding what level of heat to request at a Thai restaurant as “a tricky cultural dance.” It’s a dance diners new to Thai heat should allow Thai chefs to lead. Don’t assume that because you can tolerate New Mexico’s chile you can tolerate Thai peppers. It could be a painful lesson and the point of any restaurant visit is to enjoy the food, not suffer while eating it. Regardless of your heat tolerance, Thai Cuisine can deliver it deliciously.
4000 Barbara Loop, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 24 June 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Fish Cakes