... Thai me down
Thai Garden has a one strike against it from the outset: It doesn't have a liquor license. That makes it difficult to enjoy some dishes to their fullest. It makes others hard to swallow. Take the lunch buffet ($6.50), for instance, which mingles Chinese and Thai fare. Under normal circumstances, egg-drop soup should be a wholesome pottage, something that's a pleasure to slurp without a Scotch chaser.
But the egg-drop soup from Thai Garden's buffet table is not a normal circumstance. Drenched in deep gold, the soup resembled the color you might find in a sample made in a doctor's office after loading up on multivitamins. Then there's the aroma, which brought back boyhood memories of slow drives through Gary, Indiana.
Thai Garden's buffet table was truly an incentive to drink. Its pad Thai was plugged with tiny shrimp and large, shriveled tofu cubes surfing a wad of dry, pasty rice noodles, dashed with egg and bean sprouts glued with a zestless, feckless peanut sauce.
I suppose blame for these missteps could easily be laid at the foot of the steam table, bumbling all-you-can-eat troughs that make it notoriously hard to prevent food from transforming itself into builder's adhesives. But simple monitoring should, at the very least, keep from degenerating lunch into something you wouldn't expose to a loved one with heart trouble.
Not everything from this steam platform inspired such dining dynamics. Skirting excessive greasiness, the fried chicken was crisp and well seasoned (though slightly dry) and sparked a second trip. Ingredients in the shrimp fried rice were separate, freshly distinct, and flush with flavor. Tofu and pork in spicy sauce proved the best dish steam-tabled at Thai Garden. Supple tofu cubes huddled with bits of moist pork were bathed in a smooth, savory sauce that bit, but didn't rip.
Squares of chicken toast (a variation on Thai shrimp toast) -- with ground chicken spread over bread, covered with an egg batter, and deep-fried -- were inconsistent.
With precious few exceptions, the distinguishing characteristic prevalent at Thai Garden was a lack of distinction. Aside from attractive sets of brushed metal salt and pepper shakers matched to bud bases, all hailing from Thailand, the restaurant is outfitted in standard-issue furnishings draped with tablecloths in institutional green.
And most of the dishes proved tired, muddled, and seemingly uninspired. Which is odd, because Thai Garden was nurtured into fruition by Dallas' Thai cuisine godmother and Liberty restaurant consultant Annie Wong (she had creative influence over menu development). Wong is related by some family connection to owner Natanicha Tho Thong.
But Thai Garden isn't all mud and mulch. Deep-fried Thai herbal chicken ($6.95), which the menu notes is the original appetizer from the south of Thailand, struck with a gust of lemongrass and bit with a pepper spark.
Thai Garlic ($8.50), with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu, or shrimp, hit a few notches higher with pieces of tasty dank chicken roused by a stir-fry with pepper and cilantro. A circular retaining wall of vibrantly green, crisp broccoli brilliantly framed the tasty meat.
From there, the menu slipped back into clodhopping. Nothing stood out in the chicken and lemongrass -- not even the lemongrass. Our server advised us that Thai Titanic ($12.95) was spicy enough to make us weep, just like the movie. Thai Titanic did make me weep, but the tears were generated by dull ingredients, not vigorous spice. Mushy surimi, sallow soapy shrimp, and large tough mussels were stir-fried with Thai chili, garlic, mushrooms, jalapeño peppers, and pale wedges of tomato.
But a dessert of sticky rice drenched in sweet coconut milk was profoundly delicious. A square of sticky yet discretely supple rice grains was snuggled against thick wedges of bright, juicy-sweet mango. The whole plate was drizzled in semi-sweet chocolate sauce.
Which proves this garden has the gusto to harvest more than just dank fertilizer. Maybe someone needs to get in there and do some tilling.
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