Hot and ducky at three Arden-Arcade Thai spots
943 Howe Avenue, (916) 929-5915, www.thaicottagesac.com
Thai Cottage’s rating:
1310 Howe Avenue, Suite D; (916) 567-1056; www.thaifusionsac.com
Thai Fusion’s rating:
Thai Chef’s House
2851 Fulton Avenue, (916) 481-9500, www.thaichefshouse.com
Thai Chef’s House’s rating:
One of the awesome but sometimes humbling aspects of this wonderful adventure is being asked for recommendations. A recent request is: “A good Thai place around Arden-Arcade?” Easy: Lemongrass. Mai Pham’s Munroe Street eatery is more Vietnamese than Thai, but both are morphed by her artistry into something that draws diners umpteenth year after umpteenth year.
Then comes the thought that there must be more options. Other joints that are all-Thai-all-the-time and rock profoundly hard. Without knowledge of these undiscovered potential gems, how can a fair or full recommendation be made? Duly shamed, an exploration is undertaken.
Completely arbitrarily, the universe of examination is Fair Oaks up Howe and Munroe/Fulton to Marconi. Not the totality of Arden-Arcade by any means.
No bias is harbored here for restaurants that demand ordering at the register, but in this admittedly arbitrary appraisal Thai House at Loehman’s Plaza and Lemon Grass Asian Grill and Noodle Bar on Howe Avenue are dispensed with thusly: Fresh and fulsome fare with Mai’s imprimatur elevating the latter above the former.
That leaves Thai Fusion, Thai Cottage and Thai Chef’s House.
Fusion has Thai-food-in-America lunch selections—this with cashews, that with basil, eggplant with so-and-so, pad priew warn, pra ram and pad hel. All ably match the description on the menu but never engender a something-bitchin’-this-way-comes flash from the taste buds. Not exactly rote, but certainly well south of inspired.
It’s dueling dwellings for the top spot: Thai Cottage and Thai Chef’s House. Out of the blocks, Thai Cottage, with its mustard yellow walls and warm wood statues, takes the early lead since it survives despite being paces away from Lemon Grass Noodle Bar. Perhaps it’s the Cottage’s later hours or the specialty cocktails and daily specials. Calamari this-way-and-that shows up on the special list one time, duck has the honors on another.
In the case of duck, if proffered, choose Yum Ped Yang, which is essentially Peking duck shacking up with chili paste. The duck is warm in this salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, shredded carrots, red onion and mint. The iceberg lettuce, maybe because it’s mostly water, sucks out some of the heat from the invigorating salad, which at “hot” rather than “Thai hot” still turns faces red and triggers tears. Powerful, but still pleasant. (The definition of hot differs at Thai Chef, but more on that discovery in a bit.)
Mary and Jane—could that synergy possibly be fictional?—offer skilled menu guidance and provide consistently meticulous service. The chef is happy to add more onions to the Pad Ped Pla Muah, a stir-fry of calamari in a curry broth. Rice to accompany entrees is extra. The orange dipping sauce for the spring rolls is memorable as is the potato-plentiful yellow chicken curry.
Thai Chef’s House offers the same warmth with plenty of woodwork in its long rectangular space on Fulton Avenue near Marconi. The long counter on which the register sits is below long wooden eaves that are reminiscent of a giant spirit house.
Service is instant and engaging. One of the House specials, Hor Mok Ta Lay, or a “seafood curry mousse,” gets the call. It’s a variety of seafood with egg, the server says, plus some veggies, cabbage, basil and lime leaves stewed in a red curry sauce with coconut milk. Impressive on the natural, but when it arrives bundled in a beaked and winged aluminum foil bird with a carrot stub carved into a flawless petaled rose, game over. The addictive and unique mélange hovers between sweet and sour, depending on the contents of each bite.
However, “hot” here is inferno. Stick with “medium.” Despite the bravado of barbecue duck with pickled jalapeños on a bed of cabbage and spinach and a bowl of tofu tom-ka on alter visits, unwrapping and emptying the foil fowl is the apex and gives Chef’s House the checkered flag.
But only by a half a spring roll.