Fat zone

Chow Thai celebrates the shameful splendor of fried food

Advertising would lead you to believe that Americans are living in a fat-free zone. Everything that can be is touted as less fat, low-fat, no fat. Even products that never did have fat in them have "No Fat" blaring from the bag.

Tortilla chips are misguidedly baked, not fried, in the interest of less fat. People eat tasteless frozen tofu and gooey frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, crackers the consistency of hardtack instead of Ritz, rubbery hot dogs and ham made out of turkey, and frighteningly greasy mayonnaise made out of God-knows-what.

But the secret truth is, as fat-phobic as we claim to be, we're just as contradictory. Americans actually will eat anything if it's fried. In fact, all you really have to do to get us to eat it is fry it.

Of course, all frying isn't equal--properly fried food shouldn't be greasy, anyway. Snobs as most of us are, we still tend to equate high fat with low class, and we've got the slurs in the language to prove it. Fried food--whether it's okra, chicken, potatoes, or pie--is considered not only unhealthy, but just a little tacky. And yet we consume mountains of fried potatoes and onions, chicken and mushrooms, fish and shrimp, chilis and chips.

You have to face the fact that although fried food has more fat and calories than steamed food, it often has more flavor, too. And the new Chow Thai Addison proves it can even be chic. An utterly stylish restaurant, it wisely gives us what we want, not what we think we want--nine out of 15 appetizer selections on Chow Thai's menu are fried. The list includes fried wonton, fried tofu, fried shrimp and calamari, fried crab and shrimp cakes, fried spring rolls, fried chicken wings, fried vegetables, and fried noodles. Or a combination platter of fried everything, all perfectly golden and greaseless, relatively speaking.

The Thai are natural fry-masters, perfectly justifying my frequent fantasy of the Thai State Fair--a midway of golden-fried treats. Thai fried food is never served without an accompanying garnish or dish of tangy sauce--usually cool ruffles of lettuce, kaleidoscopic dice of red pepper and crunchy cucumber floating in rice vinegar, nam pla, ginger and soy, wedges of orange, and wheels of pineapple, the vividly fresh vegetal flavors perfect foils to the rich gold of the fried crust. Chow Thai's combinations are particularly aesthetically pleasing, little masterworks for the eye and mouth.

It is, as I said, a great-looking place--light, cool, California-looking. The lighting is modern Italian, there are big modern paintings next to traditional Thai sequined panels, the wait staff is young and cute. It's as sleek and confident as any place in L.A., and much more sophisticated than most Dallas restaurants, certainly than any Dallas Thai restaurants. Its food is not pure Thai, of course. It's a blend: mostly Thai, a little Chinese, but with an inclination to California-style, Americanized dishes. It's a place for blue cocktails, exotic beer, rum drinks with paper parasols, and orchids floating in the water.

Obviously, we started with some fried appetizers. These crabcakes were nothing like the Chesapeake's--patties of meat swollen and golden, with plum dipping sauce. Little chicken wings were slit at the fat end and stuffed with a spider's nest of tangled glass noodles, chicken shreds, and slivers of bamboo shoots, then fried. Shrimp patties of chopped shellfish marinated in red curry, patted into cakes, battered lightly-- maybe with rice flour--and fried came with thin cucumber triangles, soaked in clear tangy dressing. Tender sate strips were pounded, yellowed with turmeric, rubbed with spices, and served on a ring of fresh pineapple with a puddle of smooth piquant peanut sauce.

We tried only one really macho Thai dish, and it was the only ugly dish, too. For nam sot, ground pork is cooked to grayness with chopped peanuts, ginger, lime juice, and lots of chili. We wrapped it in cool lettuce but it was fiery hot--scorchingly hot--invent-a new-word-for-it-hot.

The entrees possess startlingly straightforward names--none of those mysterious, poetic Chinese names like "Phoenix and Dragon" or "Mountains in Snow." These are New American Thai titles--what you read is what you get: "Chili Mint," "Sweet and Sour," "Dried Chilis and Cashew Nut"; strong, nasal flavors that permeated but didn't overpower every ingredient in a dish. Lots of dishes were seasoned with Thai curry mixes, but only a few were listed as curries. We tried "Panang," the miracle sauce, chili-seasoned, lemon-scented, ginger-spiked, coconut-sweetened, over tender pork spiked with the licorice sharpness of Thai basil. The sweet and sour vegetables had a lighter touch than most Chinese versions--not gluey, no day-glo hue, barely sweet, just tangy, the brilliant green florets of broccoli absolutely fresh. Red curry fish featured a thick piece of salmon coated with curry, the flavor lessening as you reached the center of the fish.

Our favorite Thai dessert--mango and sticky rice--will never make America's Top Ten, but it's done here particularly well. A perfectly ripe orange fruit, cut smooth as butter into slices around an ice cream scoop of bland, barely sweet, pasty, slightly salty rice, eaten with the mango. Neither alone is a real treat, but together, the juicy sweet fruit and the chewy rice are a perfect whole.

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