Thai Gourmet, located at 3732 Darrow Road in Stow, OH (phone is 330-688-0880, no website) has been a local go-to place if I don't want to drive all the way to Cleveland (although I do think Cleveland does have better Thai restaurants). Out of the blue, I decided to pop in on a Saturday evening around 6 PM. It was definitely busy, although they did have a table available. It had "ok" lighting, but not optimal, so the pictures will appear a bit dark.
First, a shot of the condiments that are on the table. Notice the dried chili in the container in the front; that will be important later on in the meal.
I decided to do soup, an appetizer, and an entree. For my appetizer, I decided on doing the Thai Dumplings. Here is a photo of the dumplings:
This was FANTASTIC! A nice pork and shrimp dumpling in a soft wonton skin, cooked until still tender. It was served in a nice broth that had all the elements of Thai style cooking: sweet, savory, umami, and spicy. Topping the dumplings was scallions and fried shallots, which provided a nice textual contrast. I would order this again in a heartbeat.
Next came the Tom Yum Gai (chicken instead of shrimp).
This had a sort of odd "off" flavor. It almost tasted like it had too much of an acidic component to it. The ingredients were cooked properly (nothing was rubbery or tough), but the balance just wasn't there. This was a dish that I didn't finish and didn't take home with me.
Finally, even though it isn't Thai, I saw that the restaurant offered Ma Po Tofu. Although the version on the menu is vegetarian, I asked if they could add some ground pork to it and the waitress indicated that they could. The menu declared that the dish came out "spicy", but I know better and asked my waitress what my spice level options were. She indicated that the hottest they could make it was "Thai spicy". When I asked if "Thai spicy" was American Thai Spicy or Thai Thai Spicy, she indicated that it was the latter. So I ordered my dish "Thai Spicy", not really sure what to expect.
Here is what came out from the kitchen:
My heart dropped almost immediately. If you notice, there are no red flecks at all in the dish. No red flecks means no chilies. Tasting the dish confirmed my worst fear. Either the cook has absolutely no idea what "Thai Spicy" is supposed to actually taste like, or I got the "American" Thai Spicy. *Sigh*
So, I ended up adding about 6 spoonfuls of the crushed chili peppers that were sitting on the table. This helped, but it still wasn't the same thing as cooking with the chili during the dish's preparation. Flavorwise, the dish was fine, but clearly once again, my hope for a properly spiced dish was dashed. I did take the rest of the dish home and had it for lunch the next day.
Several days later, I ended up eating dinner at a Canton restaurant I frequent regularly, Pa Ta Ya (1122 30th Street NW, Canton, OH 44709, no website). It had been closed for a while and when I returned, they had a new menu. The thing I like about this restaurant is that it is one of the few places in Canton that I can get Chinese (admittedly, American Chinese), Thai, and Vietnamese. While their Pho is not the best I've ever had, at least I can get it on a fairly regular basis if I want it.
Seeing Thai Dumplings on the menu brought back the memory of the Thai Dumplings I had at Thai Gourmet several days earlier. So I decided to do a taste comparison between the two. Here is the dish:
While this dish had several of the same elements as the one I experienced at the other restaurant, it was not nearly as harmonious (or tasty). There was absolutely ZERO heat at all. I'm not looking to be blown away with chili heat, but this had none at all. This meant that the sweetness in the sauce was not counterbalanced in any way.
Another concern that I have, and this is not a new concern, is that the knife skills of the chef at Pa Ta Ya is just not very consistent. In the picture above, you'll notice that the knifework on the cucumbers is just not very even. While this doesn't bother me in a dish such as the dumplings, it is often a big factor in other dishes, like the Pho:
Pa Ta Ya's Pho is a decent bowl, with nice tender meat and a nice umami broth. I always add hoisin sauce and sriracha to give it a bit of sweetness and garlic-y heat. This restaurant is unusual in that they bring you out a side of both sauces instead of having the condiments on the table. While I usually only add a little bit of hoisin, I like quite a bit of sriracha and no matter how many times I go back and order the Pho, I always have to ask for extra. Oh bother.
And here is the same Pho, with an onion wedge that has not been properly prepped.
Part of the problem with such huge pieces of onion is that they aren't cooked through in their version. While I love onions, I just can't really do them raw anymore, so I end up having to pick them out.
Just so Thai Gourmet isn't the only one with a chili level issue, the one thing that drives me up the wall at Pa Ta Ya (I've eaten there quite a bit for lunch), is their inconsistency with spicing the dishes. I've tried working with several of the servers there (including the daughter of the owner) to try and understand how I need to order a dish if I want it spiced to the level I require and it is still a hit or miss proposition. If the husband owner is cooking and he sees me, I will generally get it at the spice level I ask for. With the wife owner cooking? Forget it.
Overall, I think I'd have to give the edge to Thai Gourmet. Even though they have no idea what "Thai Spicy" is, at least their dishes were more refined and better balanced.