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Thai ... with spice and style


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POSTED: Wednesday, November 04, 2009

I've always felt grateful for the drinkers among us. Their habits tend to subsidize the cost of food because restaurants can generally get away with a higher markup on your martini or wine than on poke.

But I'm guessing that formula hasn't been working lately because—apart from late-nighters on liquid diets—I see fewer drinks accompanying dinners these days. At the same time, I'm seeing a continuous string of menu price increases of 50 to 100 percent from as little as six months ago. It puts restaurants in a bind because they have the same or more bills to pay, with fewer customers, yet every price increase just makes me less inclined to return and more inclined to seek out even cheaper options. It's a vicious cycle.

One new restaurant, To Thai For, is trying to bring balance to its cost structure, by offering a fair number of dishes set at 2007 B.C. (before the crash) prices of $7.95 to $10.95, offset by Thai For Specialties, priced at $15.95 and up. Most of the dishes people already know and love are covered in the first category, so unless you're a culinary adventurer, you might never have reason to cross over into the higher price category.

               

     

 

TO THAI FOR

3571 Waialae Ave. (near Big City Diner) » 734-3443

       

Food ;*;*;*
        Service ;*;*;*;1/2
        Ambience ;*;*;1/2
        Value ;*;*;*
        Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily
        Cost: $30 to $40 for two

       

Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.

       

 

       

This is one of the few Thai restaurants in town with Thais in the kitchen, and the cooking differs from others in relying less on sugar and more on spices. At the same time, it might be the only Thai restaurant that makes no attempt at ambience. There are no orchid sprays, statuary or silks. The doors open to a deep, cavernous room splashed with lime green color. That's fine for those there solely to eat. Those with visual acumen will feel a vague unease. Just bury your head in the menu and don't look up.

OF COURSE there are spring rolls ($7.95), but with a difference. These contain shredded taro along with the usual bean thread noodles and vegetables, which should be welcome news to vegetarians.

Other appetizers include lumpia-wrapped, deep-fried shrimp firecracker ($9.95), though for more interest I'd opt for the Bags of Gold ($9.95), which are shrimp-and-vegetable won ton equivalents shaped, as the name implies, like little Monopoly money bags. Delicious to both eyes and palate.

Also guaranteed to be a hit is the Devil Popcorn Chicken ($9.95), which starts at medium heat but is made to be served at the “;Thai Spicy”; level. Although the name suggests a nuggetlike form, these are presented more as strips of chicken breasts that are dry-fried into crisp morsels, then coated with a sweet and fiery chili sauce. Even if it burns, chances are you won't be able to stop nibbling on these pieces.

Speaking of the dry-fry process, if you like the chicken, you might also like the restaurant's specialty of Sun-tanned Beef ($15.95). The slices of beef are marinated in a mix of garlic, salt and spices, then sun- and air-dried before hitting the deep-fryer. The result is blackened beef with an airy, chewy, jerkylike texture and a whisper of Indian spices, likely ground coriander with a bit of mustard seed. A lot of the dishes here tend to have this secondary layer of spices that add nuance and depth to the flavors.

Although $15.95 seems steep for what amounts to a handful of beef, that beef is also accompanied by a serving of green papaya salad, so if you skip the a la carte salad order ($7.95), it's equivalent to sampling two dishes. The green papaya salad is the best I've had here, mostly because there's more lime than sugar flavoring the dish, and the texture of the papaya itself is more supple than stiff.

I also liked the reduced sugar content of the pad Thai ($10.95 with chicken, pork, beef or tofu; $12.95 with shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels or fish; $15.95 for combination seafood).

Curries (pricing same as pad Thai) are thicker than usual, which seems to overpower veggies, so I'd opt for the sturdy Massaman or yellow versions containing potatoes, carrots and onions.

The one dish that went wrong was the Secret Dungeon ($24.95), Dungeness crab stir-fried with yellow curry, egg, onions, garlic, carrot and bell pepper. I ordered it because I'm always searching for crab as good as a Portuguese pan-fried curry version I enjoyed in Hong Kong a decade ago. (What made matters worse was I got violently ill on that trip, and even though my family returned to the restaurant, I couldn't taste a thing the second time.)

Nothing since has matched it, and this was far off the mark. The crab just tasted old and that figures. I don't expect there's much demand for a $24.95 dish when most diners' comfort zone for Thai restaurant spending is in the $8.95 to $9.95 per dish range. An elementary mistake I would not have made if I hadn't been searching for that elusive crab dish.

Finish with standard desserts of tapioca pudding ($2.95) or seasonal mango with sweet sticky rice ($4.95). Then there's Mom's special dessert, which could be as simple as jackfruit and water chestnut in coconut milk or as truly special as hand-shaped mung bean candies, shaped into wondrous miniature fruit, like marzipan. These are so beautiful, you might be more inclined to save them than eat them, but bust out your iPhone or camera to preserve the moment, then take the plunge. They were made to be eaten.