Tough-love Thai

Thailanna's exquisitely spicy dishes make for real macho food

Warnings are a big topic these days--when the world is such a hazardous place, and we can't seem to be trusted to take care of ourselves anymore.

I read in the paper a week or so ago that because of a tragedy involving children and balloons, a watchdog group is demanding stronger warning labels on balloons. In fact, they recommend that balloons not be given at all to children under nine years of age--never mind that those are the only people who want balloons.

Why don't we give them a handgun instead? Just make sure it has a great big warning label on it.

Some things are just plain your own fault. You need to keep your eye out, watch for the signs, use your head.

For instance, only last week, being the kind of person who will order almost anything just because it's called a dumpling, I snapped up the "Thai dumplings" from Thailanna's menu. I should have noted more seriously that this was the one time I saw our inscrutable young waitress change her expression.

"They're fried dumplings," she warned, with emphasis.
What was I supposed to infer from that? Was this a code? A warning?
I didn't get it, but I did get the dumplings--like fried wonton with an equally inscrutable (more correctly unidentifiable) ground meat filling inside a fried dough triangle.

It was a warning.
And she was right to question whether I really wanted this dish. I didn't. It was by far the blandest and most boring thing we ate at Thailanna, where we found the food mostly fiery and fabulous. Without adequate warning. There are stars to indicate "hot and spicy"; but I guess we regarded those the same way most Dallasites do posted speed limits--as just a suggestion.

People who don't eat a lot of Mexican food are often afraid of it because of its supposed heat. Those of us who eat it at least several times a week know that heat's not the half of it. The after-effects of Mexican food are more painful than the heat you feel when you eat it.

Thai food, too, has a reputation for heat, but the best is more than hot--it's intricately spicy, not just tingly, and there's no fat to soothe the sensation of pure flavored fragrance.

That's not to say it can't be painful.
Thai food inspires the kind of gastronomic machismo that Mexican food can. Don't you know people who routinely order a side dish of jalapeos with their enchiladas and pop them down one by one like M&Ms, sweating more and more, till you find yourself truly regretting not enrolling in that CPR class?

Thailanna's was that kind of macho Thai food, tough-love Thai food, Thai food that kept you from eating too much. Schick Center Thai--you'd think the sheer pain inflicted by the chili heat would inhibit you from eating the next bite.

It should be perfect aversion therapy, but it doesn't work. The exquisite taste keeps you forking it up. And suddenly you understand the yin and the yang of it, the agony and the ecstasy, how both can be part of the same appeal.

Is this why people keep smoking? Could tobacco possibly taste as good as tom kar kai? Shouldn't tom kar kai have a warning label? Where's C. Everett Koop when you need him?

We ordered this, our favorite soup, a world-class Thai dish, the dish that would immortalize Thai cuisine even if everything else tasted like Kibbles. It arrived in a steaming bowl with ominous red bubbles of chili rising through the milky broth, a siren-like soup with every innocent spoonful exuding a seductive, destructive fragrance. Chicken lurked at the bottom of the bowl, brown mushrooms and red chilis bobbed at the surface, half-submerged, cilantro and lime leaves floated like lily pads. The delights and dangers of this culinary swamp were unpredictable--is that pale strip a piece of Thai ginger? Ouch!--or is it chicken breast? Who knows till you bite and get thrilled or scorched? It comes with no instructions.

We tried the satay, of course, but why? It's the same anywhere and everywhere. Chicken pounded thin and yellowed with turmeric and other spices, threaded on bamboo skewers. But that's almost beside the point, because you really order satay so you can have some of that fabulous peanut sauce, sweet and spicy, coating your mouth and tongue with that velvety texture we learned to depend on as children. Did you ever sneak a spoonful straight from the jar? Don't you want to eat this grown-up version the same way?

And that lovely little cucumber salad, with the scored quarters of cucumber rounds soaked in sweet rice vinegar with slivered onions. Our solemn waitress told us these were designated satay sauces, but we spooned both of them onto our Thai "tacos," brittle rice paper shells filled with bean sprouts, bits of shrimp, and toasted tofu cubes and topped with strange threads of coconut, dyed red.

Green curry was a firestorm, tender chicken strips and bamboo shoots and mushrooms, all in a deceptively gentle green broth-like sauce, whose heat mounted and increased--neither extra rice nor water nor beer (you had to bring your own, by the way) helped a bit; pain, gain, pain, gain, oh, forget it. This is dinner, for God's sake, not a marathon.

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