Most of us, when asked to describe Thai food, would sum it up with one word: hot. And although Thai cuisine can be a sweaty, tear-inducing, truly great Thai is more subtle and nuanced. It should be a calibrated mishmash of spicy, salty, sweet, sour and bitter, which translates into a balancing act of chilies, fish sauce, sugar, limes and basil.
Is there a good reason even to try Ginger this late in the game? Newness is attractive, sure, and I like the bamboo tabletops and vaguely Asian cherry-wood chairs inside, but can this restaurant really offer something the others don't? If you tacked the menus of these four restaurants to the wall and threw darts, you'd keep hitting the same dishes. Ginger has a few Chinese dishes, but other than that, each menu is pretty much the same.
As far as atmosphere goes, all four restaurants have done a superficial paint and carpet job to renovate, and Ginger is by far the slickest. Thai Diner Too, which looks like a dive from the outside, is surprisingly clean yet funky inside and has the best service although the big double wall of windows at Mom's Siam makes for a sunny, comfortable lunch and entertaining people-watching down Cary Street. The whiff of a Chinese take-out restaurant dampens the mood at the Thai Curry House, though the service is good and it's been prettied up with some Thai touches along the way.
But the food's the thing, right? After four red curries with pork, four orders of pad prik khing with chicken, four orders of calamari and steamed pot stickers, I discovered similarities and differences. For instance, red curry tastes pretty much like red curry everywhere. After the initial bang of the chilies, there's the same tune: the slippery sweetness of the coconut milk, the crunch of the bamboo shoots and the fragrance of the basil combined with the savory base note of the pork. Pad prik khing,which features red and green bell peppers combined with crisp green beans and chili paste, however, can vary. It can be thick with spicy chili paste (Ginger), sweeter (Thai Diner Too), lighter (Thai Curry House) or gingery and balanced (Mom's Siam).
The real yardstick of excellence turned out to be, unsurprisingly, the calamari. Squid is tricky to cook, and most of us find ourselves with a plate of fried crunch that we more or less enjoy despite the chewy squid itself. But when squid is cooked correctly, very fast in very hot oil, it can be a delicate, briny thing of joy. Mom's Siam knows exactly what to do, while Ginger serves up the same old seafood-flavored chewing gum you've eaten elsewhere.
Speaking of Ginger, it was a real clunker despite its pretty chairs, with slow service and heavy-handed dishes that exploited heat to the detriment of every other flavor. In contrast, Mom's Siam epitomized the Buddhist harmony of Thai taste and offered up lovely, well-rounded dishes that tingled the tongue instead of bludgeoning it. Both Thai Diner Too and Thai Curry House came out ahead of Ginger as well, but couldn't quite close the gap between what they were offering and what Mom's Siam serves every day.
The competition is brisk in Thai Town I mean, Carytown but forget the novelty of the new and go for the tried and true: Mom's Siam is the best Thai on offer. S
Ginger Thai Taste
3145 West Cary St.
Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.;
Sunday, 1-9 p.m.
2811 W. Cary St.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Thai Curry House
3129 W. Cary St.
Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-9:30 p.m. Friday: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-10 p.m. Saturday: noon-10 p.m.
Thai Diner Too
3028 W. Cary St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.;
Saturday, noon-3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday: 5-10 p.m.