N9NE tried it. Now they're no more. Nove Italiano tried it. Now they're no more. Now Naga Thai is trying it, opening a restaurant in the overpriced abyss known as Victory Park. Einstein once said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So, is Naga Thai insane, or does it have a restaurant plan so crazy it just might work?
I really don't love going down there. The parking bites, and it's never quite as happening as it claims (and longs) to be. So many storefronts stand empty. And unless there's a Mavs game or a Keith Urban concert, the action is limited to half-dressed women outside of Ghost Bar (not that that's a bad thing) and the "see and be seen" crowd at Craft.
But we quickly found free parking, and things were already looking up. The look and feel of Naga Thai is pretty simple and comfy. A banquette facing out to the street sits at the restaurant's front—lousy view but great use of space—and a medium-sized dining room with wide, curved booths and tables with high-backed chairs sits just below.
Naga Thai Crab Rangoon $5 Crispy egg rolls $5 Tum tip fritter $5 Steamed dumpling $5 Naga fried rice $11 Massaman curry $11 Pad Thai $11 Naga pad Thai $15 Sweet chili sea bass $18
Lots of curves and curls unwind throughout the place—in the geode-like art on the walls (which looked to be Christopher Martin) to the curling fabric pattern on the back of the booths to the miles of carrots that decorated our plates. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The space was warmly lit. Read: Everyone looked good in that light. A mod, bean sprout-looking chandelier; orange color scheme; and groovy, toothy wood border all around lent a cool vibe. And the large, glass-doored wine cellar made it look as if you could walk right up and help yourself, although I'm pretty sure you'd get kicked to the curb if you tried it.
As for the bad and the ugly. One: enough with the club music already. And two: Are a pair of televisions over the bar and one in each bathroom really necessary?
Here's what Naga does have working for it—choices. The menu is divided up into seven sections, including a series of styles from ginger to cashew to sweet onion that you can have made with your choice of chicken, beef, tofu, veggies or shrimp. The number of permutations is pretty impressive. Sorry, no idea how to do that math.
Speaking of math, as far as prices go, these are the kind of equations I don't mind one bit. Although very out of character for that part of town, entrees ranged from $11 to $18 and the apps all hovered around $5 or $6. Not bad.
We decided to go dim sum-style to start, ordering a variety of little plates, each of which came out decorated with curls and curls of carrots. I went for the steamed dumplings first. The noodle was al dente, and the inside was a balanced blend of chicken and shrimp. (Your average joint serves pork and shrimp.) I really enjoyed the mild texture and taste that the chicken provides, and the honey chili sauce that it came with it was sticky, spicy and sweet.
My companion went straight for the crab Rangoon, of which I am generally not a big fan. Not a cream cheese girl. But they were the cutest little fried things. At first bite, "Wow" was all she managed. I tried it for myself and can certainly see the attraction. The outside was crisp and a great contrast to the creamy, crabby insides.
The tum tip fritters on the other hand were my kind of fried goodness. Filled with chicken and shrimp and served with sweet chili sauce, they hit just the right balance between savory and sweet and crispy and, um, not. Not sure what the opposite of crispy is. Not mushy. Firm, maybe. Anyway, they were delish.
But the pièce de résistance was the egg roll. The rolls were crispy, flaky perfection outside, and the middle was mushy. Not in a bad way, but in an excellent, textural perpendicularity to the crisp of the roll's wrapper. I would battle my way through the Victory weekend gold diggers for these babies.
As for the entrees, the first to arrive was the fried rice, which sadly turned out to be a bad pick. It was way too spicy in that "look how hot I am" kind of the way instead of the "man, that's flavorful" sort of way.
The sweet chili sea bass, on the other hand, was just as sea bass should be. Crisp on the top with flaky, tender layers of fresh, sweet meat beneath. The sauce it came in was nectarous and zingy and was particularly good on the crisp asparagus and broccoli. The dish was gorgeous, too, with all of its variety and bright colors.
The Massaman curry was also quite tasty. It was milky with just the right amount of zip to wake your mouth up but not send it running for cover. The chicken, sweet potatoes and lotus root made for a pleasurable mix of feels and tastes.
As for the wild card (something I'd never order if I wasn't reviewing), I decided to give the basil tofu a whirl. Smart move. The dish was fresh, colorful and rife with red peppers, onions and baby bok choy.
Now things get really interesting: Their house pad Thai has no noodles. You heard me right. No noodles. It's served with rice (brown or white) and has masses of thin, curly carrots instead. Or, for the carb-phobic, you can have it sans the rice and just pretend the carrots are noodles, which is not hard to do since the texture and taste are actually delightful. I ordered it before noticing it was sans noodles. Who would have thought? So, I checked out the old-school noodle version too.
My tween (also in tow that night) had the first bite. "The pad Thai is magnificent," she said. I have never heard her use that word—even about Taylor Swift. Girl knows her noodles. Served with chicken and smoked tofu, the noodles were al dente and sticky with a rich, flavorful sauce. Good stuff. Definitely worth the visit.
Now for the bad news. The service is not stellar. We ordered a side of chopped peanuts that never came, our water glasses ran dry and no offer of another drink or of more tea was ever made. Weirdest of all, for dessert, we were offered three flavors of ice cream when, in fact, they offered four, as well as strawberry cheesecake and pecan pie (at a Thai restaurant, go figure). Oh, and there are no chopsticks (other than for serving pad Thai) and no knives. That's just weird.
Back to dessert. We opted for all four ice cream flavors. The generous portions arrived quickly in very contemporary square bowls. I really enjoyed the Thai tea ice cream. It wasn't nearly as sweet as Thai tea itself. The flavor was quite subtle and would make a perfect between-course palate cleanser.
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The green tea ice cream, on the other hand, was a little too harsh. It reminded me of drinking green tea in Japan where the leaves are ground and the hot water is poured over them. No straining. It's just down the hatch! Interestingly, I'm told Naga Thai gets their green tea ice cream from a Japanese grocer.
The coconut ice cream was loaded with coconut and had chopped peanuts sprinkled on top. I kept trying to fish the coconut shavings out of my mouth, thinking I had eaten something I wasn't supposed to, or as my tween put it, "It would be better chunkless." The mango was light in color but had a bright, tropical taste, much like the real thing.
While Naga Thai's a comfortable place that's casual cool with interesting tastes and a variety of options, Victory itself is a ghost town for the most part. And even if you offer the best crispy egg rolls in town, you still might be nuts for frying up your noodles at Victory.
Naga Thai 665 High Market St. in Victory Park, 214-953-0023. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5-9 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$