Thai That Binds
From the outside, it isn't much. It's easy to miss: a double-decker strip mall stretch done in drab concrete gray with charcoal awnings. But the Nakhon Thai restaurant strip nook grabs you anyway because the word Thai is done up in bright red. Must stand out like a swank Manhattan speakeasy at night, when the bulbs are fired and "Thai" glows like a mesquite ember.
Still, Thai itself mostly isn't much within the Dallas orbit. Sure, it huffs and puffs competency (meaning it doesn't force you to drive the porcelain bus) more times than not. But it lacks boldness, or the lemongrass is bled of spark and so overused the dish feels it was blended in a lemon-freshened wood chipper. Or the vegetables, beef or fish are overcooked. (Why people will eat sushi but wince at the prospect of eating a properly "undercooked" whole snapper sassed with Thai spices tearing out of its eye sockets is one of life's great sudokus). Around here, if a Thai space stretches beyond the usual batch of mainstays (satay with an occasional curry puff) and culinary safety devices, it represents a fine moment.
Nakhon Thai does. Whole fish crowds the Nakhon menu in three guises: a fried whole snapper topped with tomato, carrot, onion and bell pepper in a sweet and sour sauce; that same snapper fried with garlic, turmeric and pepper and sweating in spicy sauce; and steamed snapper. We opted for the steamed snapper because steaming a fish lets more of the breed's distinctiveness seep through as the juices bleed down the flanks and mingle in the fiery soaking bath. In this case, it's a light soybean sauce surging with ginger and bedeviled by brazen flecks of red chili.
Though frilled with parsley leaves, the snapper's face still has that look of forlorn resignation. The tail is curved sharply to one side, as if the fish was caught and cooked in the midst of fight-or-flight propulsion. The flesh peels easily from this pose, exposing a claw of milky opaque and delicate rib bones. Its grayish beige flesh is moist but spongy. Could be cooked less. Yet the intrinsic fish flavors are pronounced, heightened as they are harmonized by the seasonings.
Nakhon is not a bustling dining room. A man in a cowboy hat and jeans pecking at a beef dish with a fork is the sole diner on one visit. Then a couple shuttles through the front door, carting a bottle of Chardonnay. A server quickly delivers a pair of glasses and a corkscrew. Nakhon doesn't have a liquor license. Never intends to get one. Damn. Fine Thai without beer can be destructive. The bubbles tame the sting as the brew numbs the lingering burn, or at least makes it so that you don't care. Bring your own.
It pairs well with the crispy water spinach pinched between the yum talay (seafood tossed in lime and chili sauce and garnished with Thai herbs) and the yum woon sen (glass noodle salad tossed with chicken, shrimp and dried shrimp). Strands of spinach are coated in batter, deep fried and spread in twists and tangles along a narrow plate. Yet it isn't so much crispy as it is pliable, meaning it doesn't droop and slither like spinach normally does when blanched into flaccidity. It's delicately stiff yet goes limp under the slightest pressure. Still, it's good. I think. Yet it's weird that a substance that normally slithers past your lips promises to crunch but instead chews like a piece of Laffy Taffy. This happens when flaccid breeds with crisp.
This is not to say eating chewy spinach is not a minor thrill. It most certainly is, especially when it is accompanied by a dish of minced chicken, red onion, scallion and peanuts in a red pepper lime dressing.
The Nakhon dining room is a haunting, lushly ornate space dripping with Southeast Asian mystery. At the entrance, a bowl-shaped water feature spurts a circle of streams that curve into the center from the bowl's perimeter. Highly polished statues of warriors clutching bows and gods sprouting multiple appendages strut and pose on the banisters and in alcoves embedded in the walls. Detailed stone reliefs of beautiful Thai women hang from the walls and a huge trophy rests in a slot behind the bar. The latter is a prize won by Nakhon owner Dean Wanboyo (he also owns Jasmine Thai Cuisine in Plano) during a singing competition at a 60th coronation anniversary celebration of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej this past June.
The dining room is furnished with thick, heavily lacquered tables surrounded by high-backed chairs with glossy wood-webbed chair backs. All of the furnishings and decorative elements are imported from Thailand. Bucks have been sunk here.
The food reflects this. Pad cha with beef is a delicious mesh of beef strips with great disks of eggplant, hearts of palm, bell peppers, basil, kafir lime and peppercorns with the dried berries still affixed to their vine stems, all stirred in a light brown sauce.
Crispy sweet corn patties come in a long slotted boat dish--four of them, the bright yellow corn kernels pimpling through the crispy dark bronze coating. The patties are composed of marinated, battered corn combined with minced chicken, shrimp, cilantro and egg. In the smaller slot of the boat is a racy sweet and sour cucumber sauce with red onions and peppers topped with crushed peanuts--more of a relish really. The corn cakes are crisp, resilient and greaseless. Threaded on long singed wooden skewers, the chicken in the satay is firm and moist and comes with an engaging spicy peanut sauce.
Fabled pad Thai assumes an unusual form. Most examples are pasted with cheap sauces rendered from ketchup and less-than-fresh ingredients such as freezer-burned shrimp from a sack and dry chicken choked in sticky knots of overcooked noodles. And then there's the egg: limp strips that gradually fray and liquefy into the overall mesh. Nikhon pad Thai is covered with a blanket made of a paper-thin omelet over the spread of noodles, chicken, sprouts, cabbage, carrot, kafir lime leaves and long strips of scallion. The omelet nearly stretches to the edges of the plate. It's an ingenious way to keep the egg supple and relevant in a dish that always risks degenerating into an ethnic swamp. Noodles are firm, separate and slathered in rich tamarind sauce surging with zest and spark offset by a shadowy sweetness that creeps in the background. There's a lime on the plate edge to choke that off if need be.
Aromatic seafood panang with bell pepper and kafir lime leaf strikes an exquisite balance between coconut milk's sweet richness and pepper's sear. The only glitch is that surimi stunt-doubles for real crab amongst the pieces of moist fish, firm and sweet shrimp, pointed tubes of rolled and chewy calamari, and a single mussel with a clean sea spray nutty taste.
Nakhon is fresh and robust--a riveting Thai dining experience. Yet not everything is imported from Thailand. On one visit, streams from the sound system sounded like Thai pop. On another visit, it was Muzak that would have done a Fort Worth supper club proud. Kind of made you wish for a chicken-fried whole snapper if only to round out the vibe. 1116 W. Parker Road, No. 300, Plano, 972-943-8998. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 12 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 12 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday. $$
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