Siam somebody

I’m often asked if I’ve ever given a restaurant zero stars. The answer has always been the same. In the five or so years I’ve been reviewing restaurants, including the last year and a half as the SN&R’s interim food critic, I’ve never given any place zero stars.

Not that there haven’t been some worthy contenders out there.

For instance, the unnamed Chinese restaurant I recently visited in the hopes of stumbling upon a hidden local treasure. “Try the general chicken,” the waitress advised me. The dish turned out to be deep-fried bits of batter covered with red goo that looked and tasted like the guts sucked out of a Hostess fruit pie. There was no chicken whatsoever, not even in a “general” sense. An automatic zero stars, no problem.

Except there was a problem. My momma always told me, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.” So I couldn’t review said unnamed Chinese restaurant, because there was absolutely nothing nice to say about it. I’m just not going to write a zero-star review, or for that matter, a one-star review, not after what happened the last time. So I had to find another restaurant to review, which is what brought me, along with a dining companion, to Thai Spice.

Thai food was to the ’80s what sushi was to the ’90s: a fun, safe means by which middle-class Americans could get their culinary yas-yas off. But now that we’re living in the 21st century, Thai food no longer seems exotic. It’s become a staple of the U.S. foodscape, much like Chinese cuisine before it. In Sacramento, this had led to a proliferation of Thai restaurants that are, on the whole, quite average. There are a few notable exceptions, but unfortunately, Thai Spice isn’t one of them.

The interior of this nondescript Broadway box is adequate enough, but then again, it doesn’t take much to set up a Thai restaurant. A dozen tables, a bunch of padded red vinyl chairs, some photographs of the Thai royal family, and you’re in business. Thai Spice also has a full bar, but no one in the half-filled place seemed to be taking advantage of it during our visit.

Over rather dark-colored Thai iced teas, we ordered goong gra bok (deep-fried whole shrimp wrapped in rice paper), yum plak muek (calamari salad with chili, onion, ginger, lemon grass and lime juice), stuffed chicken wings, crispy garlic pork, and string beans with ginger. I mention everything we ordered all at once because that’s exactly the way it was served to us: all at once. I’ve complained in the past about being rushed in Sacramento restaurants, and I will continue to do so until it stops. Automatic one star off.

That left Thai Spice three stars to play with and a slim chance to pull out an above-average score, if the food was spot on. Such was not the case.

The shrimp wrapped in rice paper were dry, overcooked and served with a watery sweet chili sauce. The calamari salad was so hot and spicy it wilted my dining companion’s false eyelashes, which was a good thing, but the squid tasted fishy, suggesting that it was not fresh, which was a bad thing. The chicken wings tasted like they’d been stuffed with egg foo yung instead of ground meat and silver noodles, and the crispy garlic pork was so hard, dry and salty, it was practically inedible. The string beans were one of the meal’s few saving graces, providing an interesting contrast of tastes and textures (coconut milk over sliced green beans and shredded cabbage).

The verdict on the food? Another star off.

Which leaves Thai Spice with two stars, or an “average” rating. All in all, nothing to be ashamed of, and a far sight better than the restaurant that had the dubious distinction of earning the only one-star rating I’ve ever given. I won’t name the place, but I’ll never forget the four anguished phone calls I received from its owner after the review came out. His restaurant was going down, he tearfully explained. “If you didn’t have anything nice to say,” he sniffed, “why say anything at all?”

Believe me, sometimes I wish I didn’t have to.