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Thai Diner Too offers a nice option for more exotic Asian flavors.

Currying Flavor

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In the last 10 years or so, Thai restaurants have become commonplace in cities throughout the United States, but if this cuisine is still something of a mystery to you, is a good place to make its acquaintance. Its Spartan décor and slightly garish bright-blue paint is a tad unsettling, but credit your unease to an ethnocentric inability to appreciate the cultural aesthetic of the "other," and perhaps it will make the experience seem especially exotic. Otherwise, just deal with it because you're here for the food, not the ambience.

Perhaps the best way to get a handle on Thai food — though it's a gross simplification — is to think of it as something of a hybrid between Chinese and Indian food. Thai chefs cook with techniques akin to the Chinese with lots of light stir-frying and steaming. But distinctive Thai flavors, with their complex spice combinations and fragrant sauces, are more aligned with Indian cuisine. Don't be fooled, though, Thai curries are quite unlike typical Indian curry — they often involve complex but subtle sweet-and-sour flavors, intense chili peppers and rich coconut milk.

Thai Diner Too, in Carytown, is the sister restaurant to the Thai Diner on Broad Street. It offers an extensive vegetarian and regular menu with a dizzying array of dishes that have names such as "Nehr Pad Num Man Hoy" and "Bang-Bang Karee Curry." Fortunately there are descriptions, but cataloging their subtle distinctions is enough to make your head spin. Both menus include subsections for appetizers, soups, entrees, curries, noodle dishes and fried rice, with most entrees in the $9 range. For an extra dollar or two, you can order dishes from the "Chef's Suggestions" or "Thai Diner Specialties," which reduces the pool from a staggering 60-some entrees to a more manageable 18.

[image-1](Hilary Benas / Richmond.com)For appetizers, we tried the Thai Fresh Spring Rolls (two for $4.95), which are loosely stuffed with bean sprouts, fried tofu and "popcorn" shrimp, presented sliced and served with a slightly disappointing hoisinlike dipping sauce. The distinctive thing about these rolls is that rather than a rice-paper wrapper, they have a wheat wrapper, almost like the delicate Chinese pancakes that accompany mu shu pork. Overall, the rolls were little more than satisfactory, and I recommend you invest your appetizer dollars in the soup department, which I have found to be a strong point in Thai cuisine. Try the Tom Kha Tofu or the Tom Kha Gai ($3.95 per bowl), which are fantastic coconut-milk soups with mushrooms and a tantalizingly delicious sour-lime flavor that works magic with the sweetness of the coconut — one has chicken, the other tofu.

From the Thai Diner Specialties, we sampled the Massaman Curry ($9.95). This is a delicious dish that incorporates many characteristic elements of Thai food and would make an excellent introduction to Thai cuisine. Potato, carrots, onion and your choice of chicken, pork or beef are sauced with curried coconut milk and topped with crushed peanuts. You choose your preferred level of spiciness, but unless you have a pretty high tolerance, I wouldn't venture above the "medium" designation — it's more than enough to notice but doesn't intrude upon subtle flavors. For a nice contrast to the curry, order a cucumber salad ($1), which is crunchy, sweet and sour, and very refreshing.

I felt obligated to try the ever-popular Pad Thai ($8.50) — which we ordered from the vegetarian menu. This is a dish which involves stir-fried rice noodles, tofu (or shrimp), lots of bean sprouts and ground peanuts. I've always wondered why Pad Thai is so well loved, and this particular sample didn't help resolve any of my questions. It seemed so much less interesting than the many other dishes offered that I would not recommend it.

Asian cuisine seems at its most exotic to me when it comes to desserts. Most of them leave Westerners a little bit unsatisfied, but they're great fun if for no other reason than sheer novelty. Try the unsightly sweet rice with custard ($2.99) which features a gray slab of gelatinous custard that quivers atop a bed of sweetened rice. It's not great, but after your umpteenth slice of key lime pie, how can you pass this up? For something that comes closer to the Western notion of dessert, try the fried banana with honey ($2.99) — it really is quite good.

Thai Diner Too offers some good fare from a great culinary tradition at reasonable prices in a low-key atmosphere. So next time someone suggests you grab some Chinese food, consider the Thai Diner Too instead, it's a lot more interesting. And when you go, try the Thai Iced Coffee — I still dream about the

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