Sugar and spice

On the all-too-frequent nights when we can’t be bothered to cook, my house witnesses an epic struggle over where we should eat—or pick up takeout. It’s not between pizza and Chinese, as it might have been 20 or even 10 years ago. Instead, we oscillate between two possibilities: Thai or Vietnamese.

I am almost ashamed to confess that the Southeast Asian smack-down is often a face-off along strict gender lines. My husband craves the robust spiciness of Thai food, whereas I am usually jonesing for lighter, aromatic Vietnamese flavors. Despite my recent resolve to sample the pho at every noodle house on Stockton Boulevard, Thai food seems likely to win out often in the future—and not just because Stockton Boulevard seems like it’s halfway to Stockton. Our neighborhood Thai place, Thai Basil Café in Midtown (with branches in Roseville and Laguna), is worth a trip even if it’s not your neighborhood Thai place; it pleases us both by offering classic dishes prepared with an unusually light touch.

Thai has become the new Chinese: a standby for nights when the cook is too tired, the kitchen too hot, or the pantry too empty. Unfortunately, much so-called Thai cooking is plagued by the same problems that bedeviled the old Chinese: In the name of pleasing American palates, it often can be too greasy, heavy and sweet. Thai food relies on a fine balance of flavors: spiciness and sweetness above all, but also saltiness and acidity. In most of the dishes at Thai Basil Café, that balance is nicely judged.

For an example, look no further than the green papaya salad (som tum). This country-style classic (on the specials board, not the menu) was bright, spicy and tart, its namesake ingredient offering cool crunch, and tomatoes adding a hint of sweetness. It was a perfect counterpoint to deep-fried yet greaseless spring rolls (po-pia-tad), the filling savory with pork and pepper and the accompanying sweet-and-sour sauce miles above the gloppy standard. Another special—blossom-like fried “cups”—held rich, delicate shrimp and crab filling. The chicken satay was more run-of-the-mill, tasting of slightly stale, dull curry powder. Still, the meat was moist and tender, and the peanut sauce was good enough to eat with a spoon and even better with the satay.

Entrees vary from salads to grilled dishes to rice and noodle dishes. The latter category, including curries and stir-fries, are presented with a list of proteins to choose from; the friendly staff helpfully steers those who hesitate toward the best matches. Pork was delicious in an unassuming stir-fry with snow peas (kra-tiam-prik-thai) that had surprising depth of flavor. Tofu was good in lad-nah or pad see ew, broad, pillow-like rice noodles that have a different name depending on their sauce—savory bean sauce or sweetish soy, respectively. Either is a nice change from familiar pad Thai.

Our server came down on the side of chicken in the spicy green curry (gang-keaw-wan), a far cry from many restaurants’ curries, as rich and sweet as coconut milkshakes. Thai Basil’s herbaceous version was loaded with vegetables (including tiny green-striped Thai eggplant), with slowly building heat and well-calibrated flavors. It was particularly good with the lightly sweet Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling from the short wine list, which happily offers a couple of varietals that go well with spicy Thai flavors. The Thai beer Singha was another obvious pick, especially on an unseasonably warm spring night.

Spicy chicken salad (lap gai) also seemed perfect for the balmy weather, but unfortunately, it was not quite so successful. Despite its heat, it was off-center, tasting salty and flat. It needed more lime—a jolt of acidity—to round out its strong flavors.

The food returned to top form, however, with the unusually extensive dessert menu—an area where most Asian restaurants don’t exactly shine. Though we were by no means hungry, we ordered the tropical grill, a sundae-like concoction of smoky-soft bananas, bright pineapple and perfumey mango. It collapsed into a deliciously gooey mess, but we finished it anyway. We also made short work of coconut rice pudding that was nothing like Mom used to make, layered with magenta bean paste, dull-purple black rice and white rice, studded with pineapple. We could have done without the squirt of whipped cream on top, but I’m not sure we would have wanted to miss the peculiar garnish of a sprig of parsley.

That odd parsley sprig was one of the few missteps in a meal that was gracious from the moment the hostess greeted us. With Thai Basil’s comfortable atmosphere and appealing setting, complete with attractive Thai art, we’re a lot more likely to dine out than to scurry home with anonymous Styrofoam containers. Best of all, the great takeout wars may no longer mirror the gender wars. Thanks to Thai Basil, I’ve finally learned that Thai food can, indeed, be sugar and spice and everything—well, almost everything—nice.