Thai one on

Bangkok City offers thrills beyond searing spices

Bangkok for your buck, that's what some people look for in Thai food. For instance, my husband is mostly a sensitive, new age guy, but when it comes to Thai chili, a macho streak emerges in Michael. He orders everything full strength. ("I want something hot," he'll muse as he peruses.) It's heart attack time. After his first bite of gang-dang, he turns an alarming shade of red, coughs and splutters, chokes, grabs for noodles, rice, beer, water, has been known to leave the restaurant and commune with the fumes in the parking lot until he regains enough control of his respiratory system to rejoin us at the table and--have another bite.

At Bangkok City, his hunt for heat means he orders his curry "native Thai" on a scale that starts with one star for "coward" and culminates in four. I keep telling him to ask for "native Lubbock" strength, but I think he's got a masochistic streak that must come from being reared on the bland food of the high plains. Anything for a thrill. I need to preserve my taste buds so I can continue my career, so I'm more conservative with the fiery stuff, but I am just as thrilled with the sweet fragrance of Thai seasoning as he is with its firepower, and Bangkok City doesn't blow all its energy on the hot stuff. Behind the simple blast, there's plenty of perfume and complexity.

Bangkok City has two locations; but no jokes about Siamese twins, please. In human terms, these would be your dizygotic siblings. They don't look anything alike. So in our quest for journalistic truth and objectivity, we ate at both of them. Rather perversely, we preferred the downtown location, even though the restaurant on Greenville is blocks from our house (and I opt for easy whenever possible). It's mostly that the little place at Peak and Bryan is prettier than the restaurant on Greenville, which could easily bear the epithet, "the place that charm forgot." Both restaurants have beautifully intricate Thai paper cutouts under the glass on every table, cloth napkins, and a good-size television in the dining room, but on Peak Street, the old-fashioned high ceilings and lace curtains at every window lend a little grace, while Greenville Avenue's decor includes a Buddhist statuette and shrine, a huge photograph of Bangkok at sunset, and a poster illustrating the Heimlich maneuver, all on one paneled wall. It doesn't add much to the beer bar ambience, which generally gives the impression they moved the foosball tables out yesterday. Service was efficient and accommodating at both places; however, on Peak, the servers went that extra step for our relationship and were enthusiastically helpful. Our waiter there brought us the wine list (such as it is) before the menu and before we asked for it. The kitchens at both restaurants are pretty much on a par. At least, you could tell the food came from the same gene pool, so to speak.

Our satay on Peak Street came with its own little Sterno campfire so you could re-heat your skewers of chicken or pork, marinated in cumin and turmeric till yellow and striped with black from the kitchen's grill. Evidently the Greenville Avenue management doesn't trust its guests with flames, so the skewers of tender meat just came piled on a plate with a garnish of shredded carrots, lettuce and cabbage and a cup of the smooth, sweet peanut sauce. Of course, to call something a "garnish" in a Thai restaurant might give the wrong impression to those who think of "garnish" as meaning turnip carvings or maraschino cherries or something equally inedible. The Thai garnish is part of the dish, and the crisp cool salad contrasting with the hot sweet meat is part of the delight of eating Thai.

Thai appetizers are true taste-teasers; Imperial rolls layer sprouts and shrimp in a translucent wrapper; "Bangkok City Shrimp" are each shrouded in a sheet of rice paper, then deep-fried. Contrast is what it's all about--the diner composes his own balanced bite of meat, rice, sauce and garnish. The Thai dumplings, similar to potstickers, are stuffed with a dense mixture of ground pork, shrimp, and water chestnuts, but the shape is different. The plateful looks like a circle of little crumpled camellias, topped with bits of fried garlic and accompanied with a relish of thin cucumber wedges, fresh jalape–os, and slivered red onion. The tangy crunch plays against the soft dumpling dough and filling. Corn cakes are like corn fritters--no, they are corn fritters, the fresh kernels mixed into patties and fried. Do they serve these at the State Fair yet? Calvin Trillin has a fantasy about the undiscovered Caribbean island of Santa Prosciutto, where Columbus left behind a legacy of great Italian food. I have a parallel notion about a mythical Thai State Fair, where the food booths would serve these corn cakes and mee krop, perfect fair fare. Light, crisp, sweet, the candy-coated noodles disappear in your mouth like cotton candy. They're a food I find difficult to take seriously. Bangkok City's tangle of crisp noodles, lightly coated with the sweet sauce, was the best version I've had in Dallas, but they still reminded me of Saturday morning breakfast cereal--not something grown-ups eat for dinner.

On the other hand, you'd better take the gang kua-sapparod very, very seriously. The milky red sauce bathing the tender pork slices has a heat that bites, then builds, but you keep on eating because for some reason, the soothing sweetness of the pineapple is what you remember. So you're seduced from bite to bite. (Food or your fellow diner is the only one who'll be inclined to seduce you after you've eaten "Hello! Ginger!" and "Kiss Me! Garlic", both aptly named Chinese-style stir-fries.) Crispy squid was simply calamari by another name, ringed round with rubbery broccoli florets; pad-prik-king reminded me of the Szechuan favorite--barely sauteed beans seasoned with bits of pork and red chili, with a distinctive Thai whiff of kaffir lime leaves, combining the immediacy of Chinese cuisine with the fragrance of Indian food, which, unless you're into simple firepower, is the perfect Thai balance.

By the way, skip the wine and order a beer.

Bangkok City, 4301 Bryan at Peak, 824-6200. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. For dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday noon-10 p.m.; Sunday noon-10 p.m.

Bangkok City:
Satay $5.50
Mee Krop $5.25
Hello! Ginger $7.95
Gang Kua Sapparod $7.95
Pad Prig King $7.

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