Taste of Thai

At Bai Thong, the décor is dreary--but the papaya salad is a delightful revelation

Is Thai the new Chinese, in the same way that 60 is the new 40, and brown is the new black? Or perhaps, since Tucson's such a backwater, food trend-wise, maybe the question is: Has Thai been the new Chinese for a while now, although I just noticed it?

I've heard that authentic regional Chinese cooking is starting to flood into the big cities, changing the face of the Chinese-restaurant scene, so maybe Thai is now becoming the quintessential exotic yet standardized Asian cuisine you get in family-run, always-open, slightly dowdy, cave-like restaurants with dismal lighting.

This used to be the more or less exclusive niche of the generic Chinese place. Years ago, I lived across Treat Avenue from Himmel Park, where there was always a faint aroma drifting on the evening air from the kitchen at the back of Old Peking. The smell of toasted sesame oil always takes me back to those days, when we'd walk across the park with friends for cheap, cheery meals featuring preschoolers wielding chopsticks and rice stuck to everything.

Ah, where are the kung pao noodles of yesteryear?

Pretty much, they're at Bai Thong (Thai for banana leaf), which now occupies the strip-mall space that used to house Thai China Palace. Bai Thong is quiet and dark, with warm, fast service, some knockout dishes and some offerings that belong to the Chinese-restaurant tradition of bits of seafood or meat afloat in a monochrome sauce. Of course, since Bai Thong is a Thai place, you get to wash everything down with cold bottles of wonderful Singha beer or glasses of lovely, murky Thai tea.

On our first visit, we lucked out when we ordered the papaya salad ($5.75) just because it sounded interesting. It was. Moreover, it was delicious. Long shreds of green papaya, pieces of carrot, bits of tomato, green beans and peanuts (you gotta love the things Thai cooks do with peanuts) in a colorful, crisp heap, all dressed lightly with lime juice, garlic, fish sauce and chiles--it was a constantly surprising, juicy delight. It reminded us of one of the most memorable dishes either of us has ever tasted, a shredded-ginger salad we had long ago at a Burmese restaurant in San Francisco. (What do you want most when you eat out? I, for one, hope to taste something new and amazing.) The papaya salad at Bai Thong is all that.

I wish I could say the rest of the meal was just as good. Our other appetizer, the gai satay ($5.75), was an OK but uninspired rendering of this familiar starter: The chicken strips were a bit rubbery, and the thickest one was slightly undercooked. The panang seafood ($12.95) featured a variety of seafood in an overly sweet coconut milk and curry sauce. The fiery pad gra prao ($6.75, basil and hot pepper with a choice of chicken, beef or pork), was better, but the sauce was heavier, richer and less complex than we would have liked. The powerful flavors of the Thai kitchen can simply be overwhelming if they aren't carefully balanced.

On our second visit, we ignored our duty to try as many things as possible and ordered the papaya salad again. And loved it again. We also had the Thai toast ($5.75), which was disappointing. We were expecting the crisp, rich, little fried-bread triangles covered with finely chopped, seasoned shrimp that we've had at other places; Bai Thong's version involved seasoned chicken and shrimp folded inside a sort of skin or batter, then fried. The refreshing cup of chopped, lightly pickled vegetables that came with these was lovely, but the fried squares just weren't very good.

For our entrées, we decided to stick to standards and ordered the vegetarian pad Thai ($6.75, stir-fired rice noodles with eggs, bean sprouts, green onions and peanuts) and karw pad gar prao (spicy fried rice with pork, also $6.75). The pad Thai was OK, but a bit bland and sweet to my taste. Ed liked it fine. The spicy fried rice was a clear winner. The big pieces of pork were juicy and tender; the chunks of red and green bell pepper and onion were blackened in spots and ideally tender-crisp; the overall flavor was excellent. Fried rice is one of those simple, staff-of-life dishes that's easy to make--and just as easy to screw up in any one of 100 ways. Someone in the back at Bai Thong can handle a wok.

Bai Thong is a modest place with real possibility--I haven't even mentioned the flamboyant bouquets of colorful, shredded fresh vegetables that brighten every plate. In fact, vegetables are what this kitchen does best--perhaps they could pare down the menu and play to the cook's obvious strengths.