One of the drawbacks of eating out professionally is that you necessarily forgo one of the prime delights of restaurant dining--having a home away from your own. The real delight of dining out comes when you've eaten at a restaurant often enough to be recognized, welcomed as a regular. When we moved back to Dallas from Austin many years ago, we lived around the corner from Mr. Peppe's, then one of the best Continental restaurants in town. We were very young, childless, expense-account babies, just coming off a college allowance, and we celebrated the anniversary of anything and everything in our lives--our birthdays and Valentine's Day, a new job and a found cat--with dinner and lots of wine at Mr. Peppe's. We went there so often that we felt it was ours. And Albert, the thoroughly professional Swiss owner, recognized us as valued regulars, offering us the respect due silverbacks and making our new-found prosperity and respectability completely palatable.
That was as good as restaurant-customer relationships get, but the point is, virtually every restaurant, if it's good at all, is better if you go there often. So often that the staff not only knows your name and where you prefer to be seated, but delivers your favorite drink without asking. It's easy to forget, given the entertainment orientation of most new restaurants, that a restaurant is supposed to be more like a visit home than a tourist attraction.
During the past two weeks, we've eaten many times at Arunee's, a new Thai restaurant in sort-of North Dallas, where there hasn't been much Thai food till now. We've eaten at Arunee's more than the number of times requisite for review purposes, and now we're given the prodigal son's welcome every time we enter the door. We're greeted by name, Cynthia and Tod rush over with the special Thai sauces as soon as our noodles arrive (they know we like them hot), and if we don't have the kids with us, they ask about them.
I misspent a day recently trying to tell fourth graders what I do for a living--how I go about reviewing a restaurant, what I look for, and what makes a restaurant good. Mostly I was trying to get the kids to use similes and metaphors (the latter an impossible concept to grasp, at least until you're old enough to realize life is one), but we also talked a little about how important it is to notice everything about a restaurant, not just its food. They certainly understood that, because even fourth graders don't go to Planet Hollywood for the food, but I didn't even try to explain how the warmth of a welcome is all the decorating a restaurant really needs. (I might as well have told them that all their mothers really want for Christmas is "for everybody to be happy.")
Arunee's couldn't have less drive-up appeal; it's in a strip center next to a "Jews for Jesus" storefront. Still, I could describe it as charming, even though there are no lace curtains or dried flowers. That's saying a lot, because Arunee's is beyond stark. Behind its plate-glass windows is a laminate box, fluorescently lit and with all the visual appeal of a Thai restaurant in old East Berlin. The prettiest thing in the place is the young black-haired girl seated at the back table, her little hands patiently pleating napkin after napkin after napkin into the fans marking every place setting. The charm of Arunee's lies in its personnel and on the plate.
The chef, Annie Wong, has been the talent in the kitchen at a number of other successful Thai restaurants in Dallas, among them Thai Taste and Star of Siam. So the food at Arunee's has a pedigree, and it lives up to it. At lunch, there's an excellent buffet ($5.95 per person) with several courses of choices, different daily, as well as a menu of 20 items or so, your choice for $4.99--a real deal. Dinner prices are reasonable, and portions are large. There's no liquor license yet, but you can bring your own beer--practically a necessity with Thai food--which the kitchen will serve for you.
The satay has been marinated until it's soft as yellow velvet, the turmeric coating coloring the flat chicken strips; the peanut sauce is chunky, slightly chalky, but not too thick; and the skewers are daintily and oddly presented on toast points. Corn cakes, rough little patties of kernels, meal, and chopped scallions, are fried to vivid gold, sided with what the Thai call cucumber salad, though it's more like a soup and functionally it's a dipping sauce spangled with cucumber triangles and bits of bright pepper. Whiskey beef--a platter of curled, tortured-looking bits of deep-brown meat, cured in whiskey reduced to salt--was close in taste to the meat essence of jerky, the saltiness whisking away from the tongue as soon as you chewed. Chunks of fish, fried till the heat of the oil ate through the light breading and rendered the outside layer of the meat chewy, were mixed with barely cooked green beans in a burning red sauce to dilute with sticky white rice. Khaaw soi--a mammoth bowl of red noodles coiled around chopped vegetables and meat, submerged in a milky red curry and slicked with globules of glistening oil--was as fiery as many fear Thai food to be.
But panang, one of the famous Thai curries, was surprisingly mild here, or at least the compensating fragrance and sweetness of coconut milk and ginger were in such perfect balance with the peppers that you didn't recognize them. (The menu points out that the kitchen is happy to prepare the food as hot as you like it, so you don't have to stay out of the restaurant if you can't take the heat.) And at lunch, the Thai fried rice was so sweetened by dry strands of yellow cooked egg that we actually called for more Thai hot sauce, which is made with the prettily named Asian bird peppers. The first time we requested it; the second time, it arrived at our table without asking, like my glass of champagne used to at Mr. Peppe's before the crabmeat Peggy.
Of course you'll think I'm a little crazy to compare a fancy four-star restaurant like Mr. Peppe's with a strip-center ethnic cafe that doesn't even have a liquor license, but Arunee's gave us the same kind of solicitous, personal welcome and service we used to get from Monsieur Albert. I just hope the neighborhood gives Arunee's the same kind of welcome.
Arunee's Thai Cuisine, 10207 N. Central Expressway, (214) 739-3436. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.; for dinner, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Arunee's Thai Cuisine:
Whiskey Beef $5.95
Thai Fried Rice $6.95
Spicy Crispy Fish $8.50
Egg Noodles and Red Curry $6.95
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