When you’re sick, you usually crave the food of childhood, like chicken soup or mac and cheese — the food of comfort. Here’s the weird thing: when my husband or I have a cold, we crave Thai food. Maybe it’s because the spiciness gets the mucus membranes going (sorry, fellow dining patrons). Maybe it’s because the strong flavors are discernable even with a stuffy nose. Maybe it’s because we were abandoned in a small Thai village as infants and raised on a steady diet of sweet coconut milk and fiery curry for several years, only to be returned to our Midwestern parents as toddlers, us none the wiser but for this mysterious Thai food connection.
So on Friday, with Dave feeling icky and having rejected my first rounds choices of Peruvian or Vietnamese, we went to Thai Café to feed my stomach and feed Dave’s head cold.
If you haven’t tried Thai food before, this is what you’ll get: the same general architecture of Chinese food — chopped up Asian vegetables and meat over noodles or rice — but with a completely different character. The signature flavors are coconut milk, lime juice, mint, cilantro, and pungent Thai curry. (I used to buy Thai curry at my local Asian grocery. It came in what looked like a cat food can and had a black and white photo of a woman looking vaguely royal. It smelled atrocious.)
Dinner is preceded by a bowl of spicy hot broth that will perk up your senses or a small salad of shredded cabbage, red bell pepper, carrot, red onion, and mint in a sweet vinaigrette dressing. The salad’s adequate if you’re nuts about cabbage, but otherwise I’d go with the soup. Thai Café used to offer tasty egg rolls as part of their free appetizer selection, but they stopped doing that a few years ago. You can still get them but you have to pay.
On Friday night, we split an entrée-sized soup and a curry dish. The soup, called Tom Kah Gai, has a base of sweetened coconut milk; plenty of lime juice keeps it from being cloying. Other exotic ingredients like lemon grass and galanga (a form of ginger root) give complexity to the flavor. Dining note: neither the lemon grass nor the galanga are very edible — they’re tough and fibrous. Best to pick them out. The soup also features moist chunks of white chicken, baby corn, carrots, and Chinese cabbage. This soup has that addictive combination of flavors that make you keep diving in, even after you’re full. The portion is sizable and really is meant to be an entrée.
Thai Café offers a variety of curries: green curry, red curry and masaman curry (more of an Indian-influenced dish, with peanuts potatoes). We had the red curry — another favorite. You get your choice of meat and then they pile on the veggies, including peas, green beans, carrots, red bell pepper and bamboo shoots. The sauce is a blend of red curry paste and lightly sweetened coconut milk, which creates a delicious salty-sour-creamy-sweet blend of flavors, with a lightly perfumed jasmine aroma. All your taste buds can participate.
Other popular dishes are the Pad Thai, which are stir fried noodles with egg, tofu peanuts, scallions, and bean sprouts, flavored with lime and cilantro. Fish sauce makes the base. (As I read back over the description, the combination of ingredients sounds gross, but really, Pad Thai is fabulous.)
For a crowd-pleasing appetizer, try the chicken satay, skewered chicken strips grilled and served with a creamy peanut sauce. One of my favorite appetizers is the Laab — ground beef mixed with rice, lime juice, and chili sauce, and served with lettuce leaves. The beef has quite the kick, which is cooled nicely by the crunchy lettuce leaves.
The non-noodle entrees are served with either white or jasmine rice. Most of the dishes can be converted to a vegetarian option by simply forgoing the meat (you usually have a choice of beef, chicken, shrimp, or just the veggies). In all, they offer 12 appetizers in the $5.95-$7.95 range and 14 entrees from $8.95-$9.95. Prices are very reasonable, especially considering the very large portions. You’ll definitely be taking food home — enough for another meal. Note that dine-in portions seem significantly larger than take-out. Even so, they do a steady-stream takeout business.
Thai Café is good about asking you how spicy you want your food, employing a handy 1-5 hotness scale. The curries, by their very nature, always start at a 2, but almost everything else can be ordered with no heat or as much heat as you think you can handle. Which brings me to the special designation, “Thai Hot.” Thai Hot is not offered as an option; you have to ask for it. If you order anything “Thai hot” the server will shoot you with a dubious look that means, “Brother, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” Thai Hot is for professional Thai food eaters and masochists only.
It’s often recommended that you drink beer instead of wine with Thai food because the beer is a better partner to the heat, sweetness, and complexities of Thai food. Their beer menu is a decent one; go authentic and get the Singha Thai beer, a crisp lager. Thai Café also has a modest but nice wine list. Thai food goes well with a slightly sweet wine, like Riesling or Gewurtztraminer. I wish they would expand their list here a bit, and offer some better quality wines in this category, like a nice Alsatian Gewurtz. Friday night, we ordered a Kendall Jackson Chardonnay ($22), but our server suggested we try a Coppola Bianco that was a mix of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. She offered us a taste of the Coppola and we took her up on her suggestion. It was a lighter, crisper alternative to the KJ, and worked well with the Thai food. Wine prices range from $14-$22 for bottles and $4.00-$5.25 by the glass.
Service has historically been very friendly, although a bit off on the pacing, with occasional long lags while waiting to order or to get the check. This night, our server was on it, not only helping us with the wine, but also making useful suggestions for appetizers and bringing out extra rice for us to take home with our leftovers. Service was snappy but not rushed.
Thai Café is tiny. There aren’t more than a dozen tables. Still, on a busy night the space can get quite loud. The décor is a little odd. Don’t think so? Then you didn’t look up to see some sort of art-brain thing dominating the ceiling. Given the rather limited seating, you have to take what you can get; unfortunately, that can easily put you by the bathrooms, the front door (drafty) or the cash register (people hovering over you waiting for takeout). Speaking of which, its location in the Broad Ripple Avenue strip mall makes it attractive for take out — there’s no fighting to find a parking space.
Still, the main draw is the food — Thai Café has achieved a delectable mix of sweet, spicy, sour, salty, creamy and crunchy. I know I started this review by saying it was perfect food when you’re sick, but it’s even better when all of your senses are firing.
1041 Broad Ripple Avenue
Dinner, Friday, March 25, 2005
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