Friday, November 20, 2009

Cracking The Spice Code At Thai Gourmet

I love Thai food. I love spicy food. One would think that my choices for epicurean happiness would be too endless to count.

Sadly, the reality is that it is quite difficult to get spicy Thai food unless one knows how to communicate that effectively. Having Asian features is sometimes enough for you to be taken seriously. Certainly speaking the language will guarantee that the food is spiced to the level you want. Unfortunately, I do not have Asian features and do not speak the language. Thus I am lumped in with the rest of America when I ask for my food, "Thai Spicy" and get anything from mild to barely medium spice levels in my food.

I understand where this reticence to spice things properly comes from. As more Americans decide to branch out and enjoy the cuisines from other cultures, restaurateurs want to encourage as much business as possible. Since America is not a chili-based food culture, it can be hard to translate authentically spiced Thai food to something that Americans would find palatable. Combine this with all of the dishes that have been sent back to the kitchen because while the menu may have indicated the dish was spiced to a "medium" level, in reality the American sensibility perceives it as "hot", or simply just too darn spicy. Over time, businesses who wish to stay profitable have to adjust.

The problem is that when someone comes along and really wants the real deal, Thai flavors AND Thai spice, it is next to impossible to get. Because there is no standard between restaurants, each restaurant requires the effort to crack the spice code so that you get the food the way that you want it. I had just such an experience when I went for a late lunch at Thai Gourmet, located at 3732 Darrow Road in Stow, Ohio. They can be reached at 330-688-0880. I was unable to locate a website at this time.

Thai Gourmet is actually part of a series of Thai restaurants throughout the northeast Ohio area. The owner of Thai Gourmet also owns the Pad Thai restaurants, one in Fairlawn and the other in Hudson. Having eaten at all three, I can honestly say that the best Thai food experience consistently happens at Thai Gourmet. The flavors seem to be better balanced and the food is often much truer to actual Thai food.

Thai Gourmet was located in a small strip mall, between the Blockbuster and Petsmart stores:

As I approached the front door, I stopped for a second to check out the store hours:

Once inside, I was greeted by lots of dark wood and a smiling Buddha:

The interior of the restaurant had a very dark, intimate feel to it. Individually lit booths lined each of the exterior walls while clusters of tables dotted the interior of the space. I was immediately led to a booth about half-way back. My server took my drink order and left me as I began perusing the menu:

When I saw that the Szechuan entree on the above photo had a description containing "spicy hot Szechuan hot peppers," I became excited. Outside of Chicago, I have never come across a restaurant that actually used the mouth numbing Szechuan peppercorns that are used in authentic Szechuan Chinese dishes. Sadly, when my server returned a few minutes later, she confirmed that it wasn't really the peppercorns that I was anticipating. Rats!

Quickly going to plan B, I decided to start out with Thai Gourmet's Spicy Tofu Soup. Here was what I received after a few minutes:

This was an excellent bowl of soup. The menu listed the spice level as "Spicy," but I thought it was spiced just slightly above mild. The spice simmered gently at the back of my throat as I took spoonful after spoonful of the delightfully complex broth. The vegetables were just barely cooked and had that perfect balance between cooked yet still toothsome. What really surprised me about the soup was the use of fried shallots, a Thai staple, that had lent a really nice depth of flavor to the broth. What they had given up in their crunchy coating added a subtle sweetness and savoriness to the dish. The only thing that didn't work particularly well for me was the tofu. Sure, it was a great way to add extra protein to the dish. But the tofu didn't really have a chance to absorb any of the flavor from the broth. The button mushrooms in the dish were actually more flavorful than the tofu was.

For my entree, I decided to go with a green curry with chicken and I ordered it "Thai spicy". Here was what I received:

The first thing that popped into my head was, "didn't I order a green curry?" My server informed me that it was a green curry. The green color had morphed into a more reddish-orange once the "Thai spicy" flavors had been added to it. Served alongside my curry was a bowl of steamed rice:

I carefully tasted the curry broth, fragrant with coconut milk. It was spicy, yes, but not Thai spicy. I motioned for my server to come to my table and she offered to get me something else to help elevate the spiciness. I was hoping it would be stronger than what was already on the table, a jar of dried chilies:

I've used this in the past with somewhat limited success. Instead, she returned with a small bowl of finely chopped red and green Thai chilies:

Eureka! This was just what the dish called for. I ended up using about 2/3 of the above dish and the spice level was nearly perfect. I finally had the spicy Thai dish I had been craving when I walked into the restaurant. The curry itself was comprised of tender chicken breast, bamboo shoots, green beans, peas and carrots and was quite tasty. The palate cooling effect of the coconut milk was nicely offset by the sharpness of the chilies.

When my server finally returned to check on me and deliver my check, I stopped her for a moment. I showed her the nearly completely used bowl of Thai chilies she had brought me.

"OK, with the extra chilies you brought me, it was perfect. How do I order this again? Should I ask for my curry to be 'Thai Spicy' and a side of chopped Thai chilies?"

My server shook her head and said, "No, no. Next time you ask for it 'Extra Thai Hot'."

So there you have it, gentle reader. If you wish to enjoy some authentically spiced Thai food at Thai Gourmet in Stow, Ohio, ask for your food to be "Extra Thai Hot" and you will be rewarded with a dish that is both flavorful and actually spicy. Then again, I realize that not everyone enjoys spicy food like I do. Which is probably why I have to go to such great lengths to get my food to come out of the kitchen prepared just how I want it. Just think, I've cracked the spice code at one Thai restaurant. That means that there are only 24,999 more to go in the rest of the United States.

Thai Gourmet on Urbanspoon


Nancy Heller said...

Great post! I just dined at the Thai Gourmet in Independence last week. I ordered my Avocado Tofu "spicy" and got a nice heat level (though I've been going a little easier on myself lately). What I want to know is - what kind of rice did they serve you?

Like the Thai Gourmet you visited, the one I lunched at also offers a Chinese menu. Well, the rice that accompanied my Thai dish (in the same covered metal bowl you got) was Chinese medium grain rice and not Thai rice! Not sticky and no perfume.

Mahala said...

This is also my favorite of the restaurants owned by this family. I live right around the corner from another, but will drive to the Darrow Rd. location because the food is just better. Love your blog. I take your assessments of restaurants quite seriously. You obviously know good food.

Tino said...

@Nancy Heller: From what I remember (and from what it looks like in the photo), it was the stickier Thai rice. Honestly, once those fresh Thai chilies hit my palate, the aroma of the rice pretty much vanished. But, oh, such a wonderful burn!

@Mahala: Thank you so much for the compliment! I love finding ethnic places where you can get the real deal, even if you have to kind of hunt and peck for authenticity on the menu. If I can give the restaurant a little exposure and drive some business their way, even better.

bonnjill said...

I love Thai Gourmet in Stow. Nice choice! One of my foodie friends loves their walnut cake. They have good pad Thai too! I have never been disappointed by Thai Gourmet.

Mahala said...

Have you tried the new Thai place downtown? Not bad, with better pad thai than most. My all time favorite pad thai is at Lemon Grass on Lee Rd. It has a great sweet/sour flavor. And why is it that so many great ethnic restaurants seem to disappear after a period of time, ie: the terrific Thai place that used to be at Highland Square?

Tino said...

@Mahala: I think you're thinking of Cilantro Thai & Sushi in downtown Akron. I haven't tried them yet, but will definitely get around to it.

I'm not sure I can add a whole lot of insight to your question about Thai restaurant longevity. I think as Thai food has become more popular, restaurants have sprung up to support the need for those flavors. Some, though, do it much better than others.

AJ Halliwell said...

I tried this Thai Gormet with my mom and girlfriend for my birthday, and we were blown away by how much nicer the inside is than it looks on the outside! Alas, I forgot to ask for 'Extra Thai Hot' and my spicy was also disappointingly mild.

Please do continue to post the precise instructions on how to order proper-spicy at each individual Asian restaurant, lol.

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