Take Me to the River

Thai is tough to master, but River Spice makes a good showing

The possibility that these rice noodles were clever stand-ins for tentacles--a wink at diner squeamishness over these suction-cupped limbs--led me to assume something clever might be at work here, but the crispy salmon rolls arrived on the same canvas, so this was generic appetizer bedding. These salmon rolls really were clever, though. Sweet and rich salmon meat is mingled with spinach, tightly wrapped in rice paper and fried. One end is tied off with a strip of scallion--a clever fastener if there ever was one--and they look like pouches subjected to a session on the rack. They're assembled in a circular pattern with the tied-off ends leaning into the center. Though tasty and crisp, these, too, were greasy.

Yet these items mark the weak points in the menu. Well, not exactly. The grilled sea bass was ripe with possibilities, but they were squandered in a "special gravy" that was watery and tended to mush things a bit. Surrounded by mushrooms and crisp baby corn, onion and snow peas, the meat was buttery on its own, and it flaked with the slightest pressure. But it lacked vibrancy on the tongue, an emphatic spark of seasoning, leaving the fish to float in limbo rather than serving a point of arousal.

It's rare in dining experience that intact corpses are delivered to the table. Cadaver remnants are usually delivered in pieces, or a piece. The exception is baby octopus and maybe a grilled quail. But the latter is hardly intact, headless and feetless as it is.

River Spice is one of the few Dallas restaurants to do Thai right.
Karlisch
River Spice is one of the few Dallas restaurants to do Thai right.

Details

Fried calamari $8.95
Crispy salmon rolls $8.95
Pad Thai $14.95
Panang pork $11.95
Grilled sea bass $16.95
Fried whole red snapper $24
Thai spring rolls $6.95
Crispy curry dumplings $6.95

The other exception--a compelling one--is whole fried fish. Here you get fins, tail, bones, head, eye sockets, the whole cadaver, save for the slit in the belly from which the entrails were pulled. And while it might be disconcerting to see a whole spit-roasted pig dropped at your table, a whole fish barely registers a flinch. Pla lad prik is a monstrously delicious red snapper coated, fried and forced to mingle with red, yellow and green bell pepper slices, mushrooms and cilantro flecks. It wades in a tarry pool of tamarind sauce: a merging of sugar and oyster sauce with spices. The crisp, greaseless sheath sheltered creamy white meat that was juicy and resilient.

This was a high point from the River Spice fryer. But there were a pair of others. Resting on that same bed of lettuce and fried rice noodles, Thai spring rolls jammed with carrot, cabbage, pork and vermicelli were savory, with the ingredients never losing their distinctness in a core of overfried mush. But the real stars sprung from oil depths are the fried curry dumplings, bumpy half-moon pillows puffed into shape by a gut filled with chicken scraps mixed with yellow curry powder, coconut milk, cilantro and bean paste. The flavors burst from the paste core, and when the crusty greaseless dumpling case was split, rich curry aromas were carried in the steam billows, much like they would if there really was a River Spice.

18111 Dallas Parkway, Suite 200, 469-533-8424. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$

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