Thai one on

Two strip-mall restaurants offer decent, basic Southeast Asian fare

Living in Dallas, among shiny mirrored buildings, burgeoning mutual funds, and low unemployment, it's easy to lose global perspective. The economy is acutely robust. There's a Nordstrom going into NorthPark. The Cowboys didn't do so hot, but there's a new arena being built on the Dallas urban plain.

Yet in other parts of the world, namely Asia, things aren't so good. The currency crisis has plunged much of the region into a recession. Not the kind of recession you might experience here, mind you, where such troubles might cause one to postpone cosmetic surgery. No, there it means hunger. In fact, in Indonesia the disastrous economic conditions are driving people to commit acts that most Dallasites would consider heinous.

Indonesia's double-whammy of recession and inflation, hitting roughly 100 percent last year, could spell cataclysmic disaster. The International Labor Organization predicts that some 66 percent of the population, or 140 million Indonesians, could slip below the poverty line by the end of 1999. People have taken to raiding shrimp farms, paddy fields, and food warehouses in the countryside. It was reported that farmers in Bogor, a town some 40 miles south of Jakarta, recently chased a group of golfers off the ninth green with hoes and axes and began planting vegetables.

It's hard to imagine conditions in Dallas getting quite that extreme. They might chase golfers off the ninth green to begin planting subdivisions, but not arugula. Perhaps we need a splash of unwelcome cold water here--a place where golf and dining out are very nearly considered sacraments--to knock us to our senses. That's exactly what happened to me at Thai Rice, a restaurant featuring cuisine from another Asian country suffering from the ravages of currency devaluation.

Just before the ton yum goong arrived (spicy hot-sour soup dubbed the "original Thai national soup" on the menu), our server knocked over a tall glass of ice water, scattering broken glass across the table while dousing my lap with a perspective-changing flood. I suddenly became aware of how cheaply a decent culinary change of pace can be had.

Nevertheless, the soup was good. Kaffir lime leaves were fresh, crisp, and richly fragrant. Slices of creamy-white galanga (a ginger-like root) sweated moisture as well as essence. Lemongrass was firm and alive instead of woody and dead, while an infusion of Thai chili paste (dubbed "chili pasta" on the menu) added a respectable, if unobtrusive, level of heat.

Still, I worried about carving little nine-iron-like divots on the tips of my elbows with errant glass fragments. Not that this would have been a big deal. Thai Rice is clean and casual, with tables covered in mauve cloths and lace doily things topped with sheets of glass, so cleanup is easy. Parked in a corner storefront in a mid-scale strip mall on Northwest Highway, Thai Rice has green institutional carpeting with steel chairs upholstered in green vinyl. The white walls reach into a band of black and white ceramic tiles just below the acoustical ceiling tiles, which have been painted black.

A bar with a high back contains assorted nooks and crannies stuffed with knickknacks and wineglasses. But the only way these vessels can be filled is if you bring your own libations. Or, you could request to have them filled with jasmine tea from the white ceramic pot steeping a pair of bags--though it makes for some pretty weak brew instead of the delicately aromatic stuff you might expect.

But other things shine here. Spring rolls--logs of lettuce, carrot, cucumber, cilantro, and red cabbage covered in supple rice paper--were fresh and tender. Glass noodles with mushrooms, onion, and egg were a savory melding of delicate noodles and moist chicken chunks in an unobtrusively breathy sauce. A trio of huge, chewy mussels crowded the sizzling seafood, perhaps a little too large to keep the flavor-texture ratio in balance. (They were a bit cumbersome, and the sea flavors grew tired and mildly unpleasant before you could chew them enough to send them easily on their way.) Also filling the platter were sweet, firm scallops, shrimp with a good bit of flavor, and crisp celery, green bell pepper, and scallions in a light sauce. And there were these strips of calamari meat, feathered and cooked so they roll into little tubes with protrusions, like big-footed caterpillars.

Thai Rice serves a buffet lunch, and most of the food survived steam-table torture without being transformed into something that slithered out of a Clive Barker movie. Slightly tangy and orange from paprika, pad Thai had freshly moist, separate noodles, egg, and bean sprouts. Plus, the chunky peanut sauce was provided separately so that it could be ladled on as it's dished up, eliminating the possibility that the stuff would turn into Thai glue. Green pumpkin soup with ground pork had a good pepper kick, but was slightly soapy-tasting.

With generous strips of dark green basil, spicy basil pork was rich in pungent basil flavor coupled with the heartiness of moist pork. Plus, crisp vegetables and a sauce that let the ingredients seep through instead of smothering them helped round everything out. The fried chicken, however, in a thick, burnt-orange coating, was cold and greasy.

Opened in late 1997 by Tha Naporn, who operated Thai Orchid in Fort Worth, Thai Rice serves mostly decent Thai food, better than you'll find in many such places around town. And it has some entertaining menu verbiage. For example, it asks you to indicate the level of spice you prefer for each dish: spicy, hot, and very hot, each demarcated by stars numbering from one to three ("I'll have a three-star panang" is the appropriate protocol, I guess). Then there's the entreaty on the front of the menu: "Let's Come To Eat With Us!" Or at the very least, take an ice-cold lap bath.

Where Thai Rice is consistently good, Thai Noodle & Rice has a couple of very good dishes that stroll with a few stumbles. Despite an indication on the menu that shrimp is not available with this dish, panang was littered with juicy sweet shrimp in curried coconut milk floating crisp carrot, beans, and bell pepper.

Equally tasty was the noodle roll. But the actual dish, a kind of mass culinary hysteria on a plate, didn't jibe with the picture on the menu, which portrayed a thing that looked like a spring roll on steroids neatly bound in polished noodle sheets. Thai Noodle & Rice has large color transparencies of menu items arranged in a lighted display behind the service counter. Anyway, the noodle roll is an intensely flavored mass of ground pork, dried shrimp, bean sprouts, tofu, and pieces of noodle roll in sweetly rich duck sauce heavily spiked with fish sauce--good, if a bit unshapely.

Squid salad was all shape, though. Strips of calamari tubes took on that caterpillar demeanor, only this time the meat was a bit rubbery with a slightly fishy taste. Still, the mix of onion and mint leaves in a lively lime-chili dressing was well balanced.

I swear I thought I found a slice of bone, or a piece of wood, or a petrified cow chip, in the rom kha gai. But the thing submerged in this tart, spicy chicken soup with a coconut-chili paste broth turned out to be a hard, dark brown hunk of galanga. Not as exhausted, but far from energetic, were the kaffir lime leaves (dark green, and stingy in aromatic flavors) floating next to dry but lean strips of chicken meat.

Spicy basil leaves had the herb in name only. I counted just two shriveled strips of the stuff barely clothing a pair of lean, dry pork bits in this lumbering dish. Crisp baby corn and green pepper elevated it a little, though.

Thai Noodle & Rice is parked in a seedy strip mall on North Fitzhugh next to Siam Groceries, both owned by Paul Kasemsri, who operated the grocery store for 17 years before opening Thai Noodle & Rice last summer. Its interior is an odd conglomeration of dirty gray linoleum floor tiles, worn bright blue booths with laminated table tops, and gold-framed French impressionist paintings hung on seafoam-green walls. Plugged into this assembly is an illustration featuring a crowd of Hollywood characters including Rocky and Batman--out-of-place until you consider the fervor with which the French sop up American flicks. Thai Noodle & Rice is a decent place to get adequate-to-good Thai food. Plus, you'll never have to worry about getting chased off the premises by a pack of golfers brandishing nine irons.

Thai Rice Restaurant, 3830 W. Northwest Highway, Suite 390, (214) 350-7331. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Friday 5-10 p.m., Saturday 12-10 p.m. $-$$

Thai Noodle & Rice, 2634 North Fitzhugh, (214) 827-5828. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. $-$$

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