Tame Thai

The new Bangkok Café needs to take some advice from Emeril and Emil

My colleague Emil Franzi has a rant about many Mexican restaurants that I agree with 100 percent: In an effort to make the masses happy, the chefs unfortunately mellow out some their dishes, lest someone find them too hot or spicy and get offended.

Well, purveyors of Mexican cuisine aren't the only ones who fall into this unfortunate trap. Take the Bangkok Café, for example.

In every way, this restaurant--just several months old--is a delight. The atmosphere, while unspectacular, is nice and comfortable. The service is good, and the prices are reasonable. In terms of food presentation, the Bangkok Café gets an A+. Then there's the food--it's far from bad, and in some cases, it's actually quite good. But the majority of the dishes we sampled were inexplicably bland, which is a terrible shame.

I first visited the Bangkok Café on a recent weekday lunch hour with my significant other, Garrett. After struggling to find a parking space--it seems the café's lot is too small to handle all the hungry diners' vehicles when business is busy--we entered and were quickly seated. The décor, as mentioned above, is quite nice: seafoam green walls and a light brown tile floor provide the base. Art surrounds the two dozen or so tables, and a bar takes up a good portion of one side of the room. The nicely padded bamboo chairs are comfortable, and overhead track lighting provides just the right amount of brightness. The only negative is that when busy, the restaurant gets quite loud, as the room's acoustics are less than stellar.

The menu had our mouths watering. Seven appetizers (plus a "Bangkok Tour" with many of them on one dish), seven salads and eight soups kick off the offerings, with noodle dishes, curry concoctions, fried rices and house specialties providing ample choices. Ten lunch specials and a handful of desserts are also available.

We chose to split the aforementioned Bangkok Tour ($13.95) and the Bangkok yum salad ($6.95). For main courses, Garrett chose the shrimp pad Thai ($8.95), and I chose a lunch special featuring yellow curry with chicken ($7.50, includes soup of the day, steamed rice, sweet-and-sour cucumbers and golden crispy bags; a similar dish as a stand-alone is $8.95). For beverages, I ordered the "fresh from the coconut juice" ($3.95), and Garrett chose the Thai iced tea ($2.50).

The salad and the appetizer plate arrived, and we indulged. The takeout menu I grabbed says the Bangkok Tour includes four golden bags (wontons filled with vegetables such as carrots), two angel shrimp, one crispy roll, one vegetarian spring roll, four slices of royal Thai toast, two chicken satay skewers and two crispy shrimp tofu cakes. However, what we got was slightly different; it, for example, included beef satay as well. In any case, the appetizer plate was quite good; we finished it all off. Everything was prepared as one would expect. The rolls and the satay were fairly standard, although the shrimp were especially tasty, for some reason. And while the shrimp tofu cakes were rather bland, I was particularly thrilled with the Thai toast. Small pieces of bread with a small layer of chicken and shrimp, they were amazing.

The salad, too, was great. Garrett, who is very familiar with Thai cuisine, said the yum dressing was fairly typical, although (TREND ALERT!) it wasn't as spicy as some versions he'd had; it tasted to me like almost like a good, sweet, creamy Italian dressing. The greens were fresh, as were the tomatoes. The eggs and the chicken were well-prepared, and overall, we were delighted. We also both enjoyed our drinks--mine was a shaved coconut with the top cut off, period. Nice touch.

Our hopes were high for the main courses, which soon arrived. Now, let's back up a bit: Garrett loves his food spicy hot. There is literally no such thing as food that's too hot for him, at least until it starts to give him esophageal spasms. At restaurants where they have a spicy scale from 1 to 10, he requests 40. Really. That's why I was not surprised when he ordered his pad Thai "twice as spicy as you'd make for a native." The server swore she'd have the kitchen make it blazing hot. Well, it wasn't. I took a bite hesitantly, and while it was a little spicy, it was nowhere near what even I would consider hot. Garrett was disappointed, by both the spiciness and the overall flavor of the dish. The noodles, egg and six shrimp were missing something, it seemed; I am a big fan of pad Thai, and this was one of the tamer pad Thais I have had around these parts.

The same could be said for my yellow chicken curry. It was advertised as "mild," and this was indeed not hot at all--but even the curry flavor was light in supply. The potatoes, onions, chicken and other ingredients were all fine, but the sauce was lacking. (And I didn't realize this until later, but I never got my soup.)

I thought that the Bangkok Café folks were just having a mellow day, perhaps, so I got takeout for dinner a couple nights later. I ordered the tom kha kai--chicken and mushrooms in a hot-and-sour coconut broth with chili, lemon grass and ginger ($7.95), and the gai-yaang kamint--a half-chicken filleted and marinated in turmeric, coconut cream and barbecue spices ($9.95). I decided to sample the khao-pad (Bangkok-style fried rice with tomatoes, cucumber, onions and a meat--in this case chicken, $7.95). I also got an order of the Thai toast ($5.95, eight small slices) since I enjoyed it so much the first time.

Again, the beginners had me encouraged. The soup was impressive. The hot-and-sour coconut broth was flavorful, and there was a LOT of chicken in the soup, which was nice. The toast, again, was fantastic.

But the chicken ... ah, the chicken. I could barely taste the turmeric and other spices--and I couldn't tell at all that a coconut substance had ever come in contact with the meat. It was nice and juicy, but it didn't have the flavor the menu description made me hope for. And the rice, while looking beautiful--tomato and cucumber slices were presented in a circular pattern on top--tasted remarkably bland. There wasn't much to it.

In the end, I'd recommend Bangkok Café, as the soup, salad and appetizers were all good, as were the atmosphere, the service and the prices. But when it comes to the main entrées, Emeril Lagasse or, heck, Emil Franzi, needs to be channeled, and things need to be kicked up a notch.

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