East side, west side, all around the town, a second wave of neighborhood Thai restaurants is blooming.
These newest family-owned and -operated Asian establishments Siam Paragon on the South Side, Pad Thai to the north and Chadar Thai in the West End are welcome additions to their respective neighborhoods. But, excluding Siam Paragon, they don't warrant a trip across town.
Among their common elements are reasonable prices (dinner entrees $8-$18); filling portions; polite and attentive service; optional chopsticks; spiciness to suit all tastes; and nearby delivery (by Pad Thai and Siam Paragon) and carryout.
I sampled three similar dishes at each steamed dumplings, pork with ginger, and chicken in pad Thai, that country's national dish.
Siam Paragon, tucked in the corner of a strip mall in space formerly occupied by the Bangkok Café, opened in November. It stands out both for its food and décor, which are the handiwork of chef-owner Wirat Wiyagul and his family, who moved down from Manassas last summer.
Sky-blue and gray walls, red carpet, tie-dyed tabletops, tech lighting and wide ribbons that shade floor-to-ceiling front windows are reminiscent of Tara Thai, where, perhaps not coincidentally, Wiyagul's wife's mother worked in Washington, D.C.
The favorable comparison with Tara Thai extends to the steamed dumplings (kanom jeeb), which are stuffed not just with the usual pork and shrimp, but also with crabmeat, water chestnuts and mushrooms.
The aptly named Ginger Perfect, bathed in a light bean sauce, was crammed with thin slices of tender pork, along with julienned ginger, onion, scallions and mushrooms. The pad Thai was piled in a tall mound, topped by carrots over crispy-thin stir-fried rice noodles, bean sprouts, scallions, crushed peanuts, sliced red-bean curd and abundant pieces of chicken and whole shrimp. Both dishes were beautifully displayed on oblong and round plates.
A special treat at Siam Paragon is Thai iced tea, a mix of strong Thai tea, milk, sugar and water. Served unstirred, it looks like an ice cream sundae and tastes almost as good.
Pad Thai, in Hanover County just north of Richmond Raceway Park, is located in a building that began life as a train depot, gas station and convenience store called Ellerson Station.
Owner Patcharee Sangkum converted the space to a restaurant two summers ago when she and her husband, Tieng, moved from Northern Virginia, where she had cooked at Crystal Thai.
The Sangkums know what Americans like he worked for the American Embassy in Bangkok for 27 years before moving to the States, and that knowledge is confirmed by a loyal clientele, including employees of a nearby hospital.
Dishes are served on vinyl-covered tables in two small rooms, presided over by the Sangkums' son, Tom, and decorated in posters and wood carvings of their native land.
The stir-fried pork featured broccoli cooked just right, along with fresh ginger in oyster sauce. And the thin stir-fried noodles of the pad Thai were engulfed with chunks of chicken, along with the customary dried bean curd, bean sprouts, peanuts, scallions, radishes and an egg-flavored sauce.
The accompanying coconut-flavored custard over sticky rice was a nice alternative to ordinary white rice. However, the soft-egg wonton skin on the dumplings was tough and so was the meat inside; opt instead for the spring rolls.
Specials at Pad Thai include crispy flounder, catfish or duck, soft-shell crab and shrimp in a clay pot.
The atmosphere at Chadar Thai falls in the middle between the glitz of Siam Paragon and the homey feel of Pad Thai.
Owner Tony Sourivong didn't move as far as the other owners; for eight years he worked as a waiter across the street at the Thai Diner before moving last fall into space vacated by Saigon 2000.
The cook is his sister, Chien Thong, who formerly worked at Elephant Thai near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus.
The ginger pork and pad Thai chicken, while on a par with those dishes at Pad Thai, arrived before we finished the dumplings.
Meal-sized soups, from seafood combinations to vegetarian, distinguish Chadar Thai from the other suburban Thai places, but Sourivong missed a chance for his place to be unique by not offering food from his native land, Laos, whose food is similar to Thailand's.
What's best about this trio is that whether the food is commonplace or special, you know it was planned not in a corporate headquarters in Dallas or Chicago, but right behind the swinging doors that lead to the kitchen. S
Siam Paragon ($$)
10445 Midlothian Turnpike
(Pocono Green Plaza)
272-9011; fax: 272-9010
Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.;
Saturday, noon-9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9 p.m.
Pad Thai ($$)
8460 Meadowbridge Road, Mechanicsville
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.;
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Chadar Thai ($$)
8030-A W. Broad St.
Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.;
Saturday, noon-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.