Last week I lunched with two friends who are experienced travelers to Southeast Asia.
One remarked that Thai food in American restaurants has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Vietnamese food has taken on the role Thai food used to hold: Hard to find, light and delicate. Who knows why — I don’t like to think it’s the demand of American consumers — but many if not most Thai restaurants now serve food that’s heavier and gloppier than it used to be. At its worst, it’s reminiscent of the really, really bad Chinese restaurants that serve Wonder bread with the lo mein and seem to put cornstarch in the sauces.
Bangkok Sala Cafe does not rate with the exceptional Thai restaurants that still uniformly think light, but it’s certainly on the high end of the average ones. Faint praise, perhaps, but I’d give the whole genre a wake-up call, if I had the authority to do so.
It’s quite an attractive place, though hidden back from Orchard Lake Road in a strip mall. The color scheme is all green and red: Green booths with red piping, red chairs with green seats. That may sound unsightly, but it’s done in soothing tones. The photographs on the walls, one per booth, are fascinating shots of outdoor Buddha statues in Thailand, many of them quite whimsical, not the serene figure we’ve come to expect.
To my taste, Bangkok Sala does a good job with its entrées and does less well on the side dishes (except dessert, see below).
Let’s face it, Thai salad is pretty much American iceberg salad with peanut sauce; the sauce is enjoyable but the salad is pretty boring. Apple salad, which doesn’t sound Thai at all — surely they don’t grow apples in the tropics? — is better, with scallions, chicken and onion to zip it up.
Bangkok Sala’s tom yum, “the most famous Thai soup,” is sour, which for many is an acquired taste, admired by Thai food aficionados, but often rejected by beginners.
Satay, which most Westerners order for an appetizer, was somewhat overcooked and tough the day I visited. It has a good cucumber sauce to accompany it, though, along with the usual peanut sauce.
The “crab wontons,” another appetizer, are advertised as filled with crab meat and cream cheese. Crab is not discernible and, frankly, the deep-fried-plus-cheese taste is reminiscent of something you’d get at the state fair.
Entrées are what Bangkok Sala does best. Pad king, with mushrooms and lots of other veggies, is gingery and delicious. Like the other entrées, it can be ordered with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, scallops or squid.
Peanut curry is as colorful as it is savory, with red and green peppers and bamboo strips in a sweetish hot sauce.
It sounds odd to serve potatoes over noodles, but potato curry actually contains plenty of meat as well, in a red-flecked creamy yellow sauce. I like a higher bean sprout-to-rice noodle ratio in my pad Thai than Bangkok Sala serves.
My very favorite item at Bangkok Sala is the creamy, dreamy housemade coconut ice cream, sprinkled with ground peanuts. These two flavors set each other off perfectly; has no one thought of a peanut-coconut candy bar?
Good Thai food is worth searching for. Let the Metro Times know about your own discoveries.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.